A team from UNESCO has visited Timbuktu in Mali to make its first on-the-ground assessment of the damage caused by last year’s occupation by the Islamist group Ansar Dine (Defenders of Faith).
The group took over Timbuktu in April 2012 and imposed a harsh form of Shariah law. Believing the city’s famous shrines and medieval manuscripts to be against Islam, even though they were created by Muslims, they began to destroy them. Early this year a coalition of Malian and French forces pushed Ansar Dine out of the city and into the northern fringes of the country, where they remain a threat.
Now that the situation has temporarily stabilized, UNESCO sent a team to investigate the damage. They had some grim findings. While recent reports stated that the damage wasn’t as bad as originally thought, that turns out not to be true.
Expedition leader Lazare Eloundou Assomo of UNESCO’s World Heritage Centre said, “We discovered that 14 of Timbuktu’s mausoleums, including those that are part of the UNESCO World Heritage sites, were totally destroyed, along with two others at the Djingareyber Mosque. The emblematic El Farouk monument at the entrance to the city was razed. We estimate that 4,203 manuscripts from the Ahmed Baba research center were lost.”
Thousands of other manuscripts were taken away from Timbuktu before the Islamists could get their hands on them. Most are now in the capital Bamako. While this saved them, Mr. Assomo told the BBC that they need to be returned to the controlled environment of the research center before the humid rainy season sets in and causes damage to the fragile pages.
Timbuktu in Mali is a UNESCO World Heritage Site thanks to its many shrines to Muslim saints and its collection of some 300,000 manuscripts dating as far back as the beginning of the 13th century. They’re in several languages and cover everything from the history of the Songhai Empire to medical texts. They’re the biggest collection of texts from west Africa and are immeasurably important in our understanding of the continent’s past.
Sadly, the city got captured by the Islamist group Ansar Dine (Defenders of Faith) last April as part of a war against the government. The Islamists enforced a harsh version of Sharia law and destroyed many of the shrines. It was also feared that they had destroyed all the manuscripts.
Now that Timbuktu has been liberated by French and Malian forces, it turns out the damage isn’t as bad as previously reported. Reuters reports that most of the manuscripts were hidden in private homes and secret caches. The people of Timbuktu have had to do this many times in the face of invaders, and so they got together to protect their heritage.
The two libraries that housed tens of thousands of the manuscripts were not significantly damaged. About 2,000 manuscripts are missing. Some were burned and others may have been stolen to be sold on the international antiquities market. Also, it appears that only “dozens” of the more than 300 shrines were destroyed or significantly damaged.
An Agence France-Presse report today states that some manuscripts were smuggled all the way to the capital Bamako in the south, where they were out of reach of the rebels. The furniture in one of the main libraries was looted and there’s a pile of ash on the floor from where the Islamists burnt some of the manuscripts, but the library and collection as a whole are fine.
So it looks like the ancient heritage of Timbuktu has survived another war. Hopefully soon the situation will stabilize and the famous city will once again become a destination for scholars and adventure travelers.
Two major exhibitions on opposite sides of the globe are focusing on the art of medieval manuscript illumination.
At the Getty Center in Los Angeles, a show has just opened highlighting the burst in creativity and education in what is popularly called the Gothic period. Gothic Grandeur: Manuscript Illumination, 1200–1350 features books from this important period, when educated Europe created a huge demand for illustrated manuscripts.
Looking at these works of art instantly dispels the popular notion that the Middle Ages were a low period in civilization. In fact, it was a time of great artistic creativity and innovation. Even though the Church tried to create an orthodox mode of thinking, science and basic questions of philosophy were able to advance, albeit slowly. Even existentialism had a place. Just read the opening chapter of St. Augustine’s Confessions if you don’t believe me.
The exhibition mainly draws on Getty’s impressive permanent collection, including recent prize acquisitions such as the Abbey Bible, one of the finest Gothic illuminated manuscripts ever made. Also of interest is the Northumberland Bestiary, a mid-13th century encyclopedia of animals.
In London, the British Library is running Royal Manuscripts: The Genius of Illumination. This collection of 150 manuscripts from the library’s collection date from the 8th to the 16th century and depict royalty through the ages. Some were even owned by kings and queens, such as a psalter with marginal notations by Henry VIII. The exhibition not only covers the royalty about and for whom the books were created, but also the artists who create them. Not all were monks as commonly believed. Many books were made by professional freelance artists who hustled for commissions from the rich and powerful. Not much has changed!
Gothic Grandeur: Manuscript Illumination, 1200–1350 has two installations, one running to 26 February 2012 and the next running from 28 February to 13 May 2012. Royal Manuscripts: The Genius of Illumination runs until 13 March 2012.