Carefully packed, a set of 25 fragile Timbuktu manuscripts has just arrived in Delhi. Curator Khatibur Rahman was concerned about their long journey, covering a distance of over 8,000 km from the Mamma Haidara Memorial Library in Mali to the National Museum in Delhi.
He recollects how the delicate documents undertook their most precarious expedition in 2012. To save them from militant group Ansar Dine, thousands of manuscripts were smuggled from Timbuktu to Bamako a 1,000 km journey through Mali. When terrorists set fire to two libraries in Timbuktu, the world thought that all was lost, only to be told later that only 4,000 manuscripts had been destroyed and the rest were safe. “These are not just the most important collections of written heritage of African literary tradition, but also a valuable source of information for the world,” says Rahman.
Assistant curator (Arabic Manuscripts) at the National Museum, Rahman is curating the exhibition “Taj Mahal Meets Timbuktu” that will open at the National Museum on May 24. In the midst of preparing the plaques and finalising the intricacies of the display, he shares that the manuscripts will be exhibited according to their theme, which covers a wide range — Quranic science, Sufism, Arabic Grammar, good governance, Islamic jurisprudence, arithmetic, agriculture and astronomy, among others. “Unlike the calligraphy we see in this part of the world, the manuscripts are in scripts developed in Africa — Saharan, Maghreb, Essouk and Sudanese,” says Rahman, adding, “It includes an 18th century manuscript that is considered one of the best treatise on science of language. It discusses Arabic lexicography and philology in a lucid manner.”
Proposed last year during Minister of State for External Affairs, MJ Akbar’s official visit to Mali, this is the first major exhibition of the ancient manuscripts of Timbuktu in India, according to Amadou Diallo, Charge d Affaires, Embassy of Mali. Among others, he says, the objectives include “exploring the shared link in the respective histories of Mali and India in which deep oral traditions coexisted with the written word” and “fostering a dynamic exchange with academic, technical and financial partners on effective approaches to cataloguing and management of historical manuscripts and cultural artifacts and their conservation and preservation”.
Dating 14th to 19th century, the manuscripts have a rich history. It is believed that in the early 14th century, African monarch Mansa Musa made a pilgrimage to Mecca and invited several religious scholars to create a new center for Islamic scholarship in Timbuktu. During the following centuries, several scholars attended this institution, producing thousands of manuscripts.
In the following centuries, the knowledge of the manuscripts was lost, as it was not incorporated in education under the colonial rule. The obliviousness even led British historian HR Trevor Roper to famously announce in the ‘30s, “Perhaps in the future, there will be some African history to teach. But, at present there is none: there is only the history of the Europeans in Africa. The rest is darkness”.
While the significance of these documents was realised later, in the more recent years their planned evacuation by librarian Abdel Kader Haidara has generated much interest in both the manuscripts and the very forethought and precision with which they were smuggled out for safekeeping. When Islamic rule was declared in Timbuktu and the rebels began destroying shrines in 2012, Haidara led an operation to hide the documents from institutions into private homes.
Locals were recruited to transport thousands of trunks of nearly 40,000 manuscripts by donkey carts, bicycles and boats to the south of Mali. “The operation is commendable. We would have lost a lot of knowledge and our cultural heritage with these manuscripts,” says Rahman. Their preservation, too, is an arduous task, notes the curator, adding how, at 25, the set on display might seem small, but this is a rare opportunity to view the precious historical documents, with a rather adventurous history, in India.