Guerrilla archiving

The torching of the Ahmed Baba Institute by religious fanatics has an echo in the story of the man it was named for. Timbuktu was once a significant center of learning in the Songhai Empire, fueled in part by the expulsion of Muslims from Spain in the 15th century and by the ascension of a tolerant ruler. Ahmed Baba is often called its greatest scholar. In 1591 Morocco captured the city, and many scholars were arrested, killed, or exiled. Ahmed Baba was among those forcibly removed, and he was imprisoned for a period of time before being released in Marrakesh. His own private library was sacked.

A great many manuscripts from this period and earlier remained in the city, often hidden away in lots of small collections. The climate is dry most of the year, but in August the weather turns rainy and humid, and the average temperature for the year is a grim 29° C. That’s not good for the long-term survival of paper or parchment if it isn’t kept under controlled conditions. Nonetheless, many manuscripts have survived for centuries in many different hands, and lately, with the help of grant money, some people have been trying to gather them again. The Ahmed Baba Center (later the Ahmed Baba Institute) was established in 1973, and a new building for it was opened in 2009. The Institute had a collection of about 30,000 manuscripts before the fanatics occupied the city.

As they were driven out, they torched the building. At first it was reported that most of its collection had been destroyed, but recent accounts say that wasn’t the case. A large number of manuscripts were in the old building, and many others were transported to safe places, in some cases entirely outside the city. The question remains of how much damage occurred moving these fragile items, but it appears that the actions of some people with foresight and initiative saved major cultural resources.

Most of the focus in the news has been on the Ahmed Baba Institute’s collection of Islamic manuscripts, but it wasn’t a mere storehouse of religious texts. New Scientist reports that “[t]he texts include documents on astronomy, medicine, botany, mathematics and biology, evidence that science was under way in Africa before European settlers arrived.” Smithsonian Magazine reports:

At a time when Europe was emerging from the Middle Ages, African historians were chronicling the rise and fall of Saharan and Sudanese kings, replete with great battles and invasions. Astronomers charted the movement of the stars, physicians provided instructions on nutrition and the therapeutic properties of desert plants, and ethicists debated such issues as polygamy and the smoking of tobacco.

What does a city that serves as a synonym for remoteness have to do with “building my world”? Well, having just finished the first draft of Files that Last, I’m fascinated by the efforts by which many people acted to preserve the historic manuscripts of Timbuktu. This isn’t the only example of that kind of action; recently I came across the story of the Warsaw Ghetto’s secret archive. There may be enough such stories to put together into a book. I’m making no promises now, but the idea intrigues me, since it would appeal to my interests in both preservation and freedom. If anyone can point me at more stories of this kind, it might help push me along.

Update: Here’s an article with more details on the rescue of the manuscripts.

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2 Responses to “Guerrilla archiving”

  1. Jeffrey Scherer Says:

    thanks for posting this follow up. We never seem to hear the full story–beyond the initial sensationalism. I really appreciate your scholarship.

    • Gary McGath Says:

      Thanks, but since this lies close to my areas of professional expertise, I have to decline any claims of “scholarship.” I just did some Web searches.


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