Conservation Disasters News Mali

Unesco raising $11m to save Mali’s heritage

Ancient manuscripts and historical sites in Timbuktu damaged by rebels

Men recover burnt ancient manuscripts at the Ahmed Baba Centre for Documentation and Research in Timbuktu in January

Unesco has launched a $11m rescue project for Timbuktu, following a meeting in Paris on 18 February. Key heritage experts travelled from Mali to report on the damage to ancient manuscripts and historical sites in the ancient city, which lies on the edge of the Sahara.

The destruction in Timbuktu and other sites in northern Mali was caused by Islamic rebels who fled in late January, following the arrival of French troops. Unesco’s “Action Plan for the Rehabilitation of Cultural Heritage and the Safeguarding of Ancient Manuscripts in Mali” was approved at the end of the day-long meeting.

Mali’s minister of culture, Bruno Maïga, said in an interview with The Art Newspaper that 2,000-3,000 manuscripts had been destroyed by rebels at the state-supported Ahmed Baba Institute of Higher Learning and Islamic Research in Timbuktu. “These were manuscripts which had been set aside for conservation or digitisation,” he explained.

The minister believes that “the rest of Timbuktu’s manuscripts have been saved”. He says that ultimately the 300,000 manuscripts should be returned to Timbuktu, which is “where they belong, since that is where they have most meaning”.

Abdel Kader Haïdara, the owner of the most important private collection of manuscripts, told the meeting that he and his colleagues had helped save tens of thousands of texts, both his own and those of other families. Using a network of contacts, he helped arrange for the manuscripts to be hidden in Timbuktu or outside the city. He promised to reveal details of the secret evacuation once the security situation is safer.

In the meantime, there are fears that the fragile manuscripts, some dating back many centuries, could be threatened by conservation problems. The Unesco conference also stressed the need to digitise the most important material as an urgent priority.

Unesco has promised to assist with the restoration of buildings in Timbuktu. Fourteen of the city’s 16 most important ancient mausoleums were virtually destroyed by the Islamic rebels, but they will now be rebuilt.

For a full report on the conservation efforts in Mali, see our March print edition.

Mali’s minister of culture, Bruno Maïga, with Unesco's director-general Irina Bokova in Paris. Photo: UNESCO/EMILIEN URBANO
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21 Feb 13
16:11 CET


I cant tell you how relieved I was to read that UNESCO was trying to save the Timbuktu’s Islamic manuscripts. These works are not just important to people who are Muslims but an integral part of the development of spiritual human history. People who burn books will always be condemned as the worst of the worst and never be in power for long where ever they may pop up on this Earth. Augustus Firestone

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