Lost texts find new lifeTIMBUKTU, Mali There was a time, centuries ago, when the Sahara was arguably one of the best places on earth to buy a book. From West Africa's Atlantic coast across the sandy expanses to the White Nile in the east, camels laden with chests full of books and manuscripts trekked from one oasis to the next. In caravan cities like Timbuktu, tanners, leather workers and scribes worked to replenish the rich stock of political treatises, scientific manuals, law books and sacred texts.
Many of these works were lost during the colonial era, when Africa became known as a continent with no written history. But others survived, their pages frayed but still intact, some hidden beneath mud homes, others stashed in desert caves, a trove of ancient documents dating from as long ago as 1,000 years.
Today, thanks to outside help, Timbuktu is at the edge of a cultural revival. Increasingly known as a repository of Africa's intellectual heritage, it is attracting scholars seeking to rediscover and preserve the lost texts.
Particularly relevant, black African and Arab scholars say, are accounts of how the African interpretation of Islam helped regulate the affairs of men, resolve disputes and provide a model of tolerance. Buried in the crumbling manuscripts of Timbuktu and neighboring cities, scholars are finding evidence of wars averted, sieges ended and lawlessness put to rest.
The information is all the more valuable for moderate Muslim leaders because of the rise of less tolerant forms of Islam, like Saudi Arabia's Wahhabism or the Salafist movement in Algeria, that are expanding their foothold.
Timbuktu, which sits on the southern edge of the Sahara just north of the Niger River, was the most important of the region's former intellectual capitals. In 1967, Unesco provided money for a manuscript conservation center in Timbuktu, but until recently progress was excruciatingly slow.
Then, in 1997, recalls Abdelkader Haidara, director of Timbuktu's Mamma Haidara Library, Henry Louis Gates Jr. of Harvard University unexpectedly arrived.
Gates, the chairman of Harvard's African and African-American studies department, had traveled to the city to find out about its ancient documents.
"I opened the doors to the books and manuscripts piled up in a dusty back room by the thousands, and Professor Gates broke down in tears," Haidara said. "He started to sob and said he had grown up all his life believing that Africa had no written heritage of its own. 'Lies, lies, all lies,' he said."
Gates got in touch with the Andrew Mellon Foundation, which agreed to finance a small restoration project for the Arabic-language documents in Haidara's family library, some of them 850 years old.
The foundation and several European Union aid groups have since begun the meticulous process of restoring the ancient texts of Timbuktu. Money has also been provided to build several libraries; some now have shelves, held together with chicken wire.
"Only a select group of scholars is aware of the African model of Islam found in these ancient texts," said Stephanie Diakite, an American scholar who works closely with African scholars and is eager to help, as she put it, "reanimate an old model of thinking."
In one aid project, Diakite and local librarians are finding families with ancient skills in manuscript writing and bookbinding to get them involved in the text preservation process.
"Some families have kept tools in their homes for centuries and haven't known what they were used for," said Diakite, a legal expert who is a certified bookbinder. "We are locating these families and training men and women in the art of conservation, adapting old book-writing and -binding skills to the necessities of the modern age."
In addition, workers are scanning pages of the ancient texts and creating digital images of the works.
Timbuktu arose in the 12th century on the site of an oasis, and by its height in the 15th and 16th centuries had grown to a city of 100,000. As a crossroads on Saharan trading routes, the city prospered and a vibrant intellectual life took shape, with wealthy rulers and religious leaders sponsoring scholars.
Publishing thrived. Books were produced by artisans like skin tanners, leather workers and metallurgists, with calligraphers, illuminators and gilders working a stage above them, and scribes sitting alongside learned intellectuals.
Entire libraries of African texts - mostly written in Arabic, but often transcribed from local African languages - were handed down from father to son over the centuries. In those medieval times, religious and political assemblies met in the courtyards of Timbuktu's many libraries to take up legal matters and to resolve communal disputes. Elders applied ancient texts to the understanding of current affairs.
When armies from what is now Morocco invaded the city at the end of the 16th century, they were greeted with astonishment and gentle rebukes by Timbuktu's elders, who said they could find no reference in the Koran that would permit one Muslim nation to invade and enslave a similar state. Unimpressed, the invading commanders shackled Timbuktu's intellectuals, mounted them on camels and packed them off to Marrakesh, Morocco.
One of Timbuktu's largest remaining libraries, the Fondo Kati, is run by Ismael Diadie Haidara, an eclectic scholar who claims Germanic, Jewish and Black African descent.
"Timbuktu was a melting pot for centuries," said Diadie Haidara, who has written several books, including one on the Jews of Timbuktu, who flourished here centuries ago and built a synagogue that lasted through the 19th century.
Scholars today argue that study of the ancient texts will help the region's people reconnect with a lost identity. "Our work is both urgent and necessary as a means of recovering our collective memory," said Abdelkader Haidara.
Although few Malian youths these days can read Arabic, Haidara and Diakite have begun a program to involve Timbuktu's young people in recitations, particularly poetry readings on themes of openness and tolerance.
Along with the half-million books and manuscripts that Diakite says she has seen in Timbuktu and the city of Gao in recent years, there are, she added, "thousands of wonderful poems," many reflecting a lost culture that now has a chance to be rediscovered.