Efforts to save Timbuktu’s cultural heritage attract attention from all over the world

Article, 12.03.2015

An international conference has been held in Mali’s capital, Bamako, to take stock of efforts currently under way to rehabilitate the cultural heritage of northern Mali, which has been threatened and damaged by Islamist groups. Switzerland is at the forefront of this rescue operation. The SDC is contributing over CHF 1 million to the preservation of ancient manuscripts and the restoration of mosques, mausoleums and libraries in the city of Timbuktu.

A Malian woman making a solander box.
Before ancient manuscripts can be preserved, solander boxes are made to store them temporarily and protect them from humidity. © UNESCO

While war was raging in northern Mali in 2012, a local NGO in northern Mali realised the risk to Mali’s cultural heritage and organised the smuggling out of approximately 270,000 ancient manuscripts that were held in several libraries in Timbuktu. Once the manuscripts had been transported to the capital, Bamako, and shielded from attack by Islamist groups, they still had to be protected from humidity. That is when the SDC, conscious of the immeasurable value of the manuscripts, funded the establishment of storage infrastructures consisting of dehumidifiers and workshops to make solander boxes.

What is the current status of the efforts to save and conserve the manuscripts? What can be done to celebrate and ensure the sustainability of Mali’s Arab-Islamic heritage? To address these questions, an international conference was held in Bamako from 28 to 30 January 2015 with the participation of the Swiss cooperation office in Mali. “The conference demonstrated the importance of a long-term strategy to preserve Mali’s cultural heritage, and the need to garner additional financial support from the international community,” explains Marcel Stoessel, deputy director of the SDC in Mali.

The largest donor

Having committed more than CHF1 million since 2013, Switzerland is currently the largest donor to the global programme to rehabilitate the cultural heritage damaged by the conflict in northern Mali, an initiative led by UNESCO in close collaboration with Mali’s Ministry of Culture, Crafts and Tourism. In addition to preserving the manuscripts, the programme also aims to rehabilitate several of Timbuktu’s mosques, mausoleums and historical libraries.

Building projects started in the autumn of 2013 in Timbuktu have already allowed the reconstruction of three mosques and one private library. The restoration work, which is scheduled to continue at least until 2016, is being carried out by local masons and artisans. As well as involving the communities concerned in the preservation of their heritage, the project is also helping to get the region’s economy back on its feet. Workers employed in the rehabilitation of the monuments must be especially trained in traditional adobe building techniques.

The Ahmed Baba Institute for Higher Learning and Islamic Research would like to eventually return all the manuscripts to their place of origin, namely the restored buildings of Timbuktu. This project will, however, have to take account of the security situation in the region, which is still highly volatile. Until then, thousands of ancient manuscripts will be indexed and catalogued. Part of the collection will also be digitised to make the manuscripts available worldwide.