Minnesotans help rescuers of massive collection of ancient Islamic texts

Categories: Around the Diocese

Benedictine’s Hill Museum and Manuscript Library electronically preserving treasures from Timbuktu

March 14, 2014, edition
By Nikki Rajala
Photos courtesy of Hill Museum and Manuscript Library, Collegeville

In action movies, heroes risk great peril in mysterious locales — like the deserts of Timbuktu — and fight deadly enemies to rescue treasure. Though the combatants persist, the wiles and wisdom of the heroes prevail, saving the treasure for future centuries. It’s great entertainment for our winter nights.


In Bamako, a conservation technician works on a fragile manuscript. At the preservation center, several workers spend their days carefully cleaning and preparing manuscripts for cataloging and photography.

But the true story below has more drama than an Indiana Jones film — and has a local connection.

After the harrowing rescue by people of Mali of real treasures — a trove of unique Arabic manuscripts — the Hill Museum and Manuscript Library in Collegeville is assisting in a different long-term “rescue.”

Benedictine Father Columba Stewart, HMML’s executive director, told the story — and explained the role the Hill Museum played.

He named Victoria Coifman, a professor of African history and African studies in the department of African American and African Studies at the University of Minnesota, as an expert in the area and cheerleader for HMML’s work.

Back in the day

“Timbuktu, in its heyday,” Father Stewart said, “was an important point on the trade route bringing gold from Mali across the Sahara to northern Africa. When trade shifted to the Atlantic coast, Timbuktu got forgotten.”


HMML field director Walid Mourad conducts a training session with members of the Malian team of preservation technicians.

Coifman agreed. “In addition to trade, Timbuktu was a center of Islamic scholarship with a focus on religion, teachers, writing and manuscripts. By the time the first European visited Timbuktu in the early 19th century, it had become less storied, with declining trade and encroaching sands.”

The explorers found other wealth — in manuscripts, not gold, Father Stewart said. For centuries documents had been housed in home libraries in Timbuktu.

“They’re not like libraries we think of,” he said. “Several related families living in the same compound would tuck important papers inside their Quran, like we would a family Bible. Multiply that by centuries. Many families had scholars — trained in law or medicine — who might have studied legal or medical applications of the Quran.

“There are beautiful examples of Arabic calligraphy — which their scribes were famous for — using curved letters themselves as art. Some pages have gold ornamentation or borders with geometric shapes; astronomy or mathematics manuscripts have gorgeous diagrams.”

Timbuktu’s archives contained commentary on the Quran, texts on astronomy, medicine, commerce, diplomatic relations, Arabic linguistics, even property deeds. All told, there were about 40 large collections of books and papers, he said.

The threat takes shape

Mali has been a center of peace, Coifman said, until the last few years.

12-13map“Beginning in spring 2012,” she said, “Mali ‘lost’ its northern region to (respectively) a military revolt against the government, the declaration of an independent polity by Berbers in this northern region and the influx of ‘strangers’ and religious fundamentalists, seeking revolution. Resolutions to the instability are being sought now under a newly-elected Malian head of state in a reunited Mali.”

Father Stewart concurred. “In 2012, with clear signs of an invasion of hard-line Islamists into northern Mali, local people began quietly evacuating important family libraries and archives. That rescue is told well in a recent issue of Smithsonian magazine. The insurgents arrived in summer 2012 and seized control.”

According to Smithsonian’s January 2014 issue, the armed group called Ansar Dine banned singing, dancing, celebrating Sufi festivals. Unveiled women were flogged. Sixteen mausoleums from the 15th century housing the remains of beloved Sufi saints and scholars were destroyed.

Then, manuscripts in their libraries — symbols of open-mindedness — became targets.


Benedictine Father Columba Stewart, executive director of the Hill Museum and
Manuscript Library, stands with some of the dozens of metal shipping boxes containing the rescued manuscripts of Timbuktu.

They were at risk, Father Stewart said, “because these fundamentalist Muslims saw anything other than the Quran — even a commentary on the Quran — as decadent. What we think of as hallmarks of a cultivated civilized people, they consider a distraction from the Quran.

“In January 2013,” he said, “3,500 French paratroopers pushed the fundamentalists out. They’ve faded into the desert but when the French leave, they’ll return.

“Initial reports said they’d destroyed the manuscripts. By late January 2013, the truth emerged — people had successfully smuggled most of them out. Some were destroyed, but not thousands or tens of thousands.”

The manuscripts had been packed in thousands of metal boxes, moved 500 miles by land and water and are now stashed in hidden locations in Bamako, Mali’s capital city.

But a graver danger emerged — mildew and mold in the damp storage conditions of Bamako’s tropical climate.

Enter Hill Museum and Manuscript Library

“In May 2013 — in the Amsterdam airport,” Father Stewart said, “I met with a program officer of the Prince Claus Fund which funded the rescue. She put me in contact with the hero of the rescue, Abdel Kader Haïdara, and we started exchanging emails.”

That led Father Stewart to Mali last August to lay groundwork for a digitizing project.


In May 2013, Father Stewart was introduced to Abdel Kader Haïdara, who was the hero for the rescue.

In December Father Stewart departed to Bamako with Wayne Torborg, director of HMML’s digital collections and imaging, and Walid Mourad, HMML’s field director in Beirut.

Ten days later, they returned to Collegeville with a signed contract to digitize the 300,000 Islamic documents. They’d set up a studio and trained Malians to do initial cataloging, repairing as necessary and photographing the manuscripts which will remain in Mali.

“This isn’t our first digitizing project of Islamic texts,” Father Stewart said, “but it’s potentially our largest.”

Torborg was struck by the Malians’ commitment to the project.

“They struggled to get these manuscripts to safe places,” he said, “so they’re determined not to let anything happen to them and dedicated to getting them digitized.”

The paper and parchment manuscripts, Torborg said, range from pristine to falling apart to almost dust. “Paper presents an additional challenge — there might be holes from insects.”

HMML’s role could take years, Torborg said. In a few months they will have a clearer idea.

“Long-term archiving of the contents of the manuscripts,” he said, “also protects them against other losses, for example to souvenir hunters or the antiquities market. A manuscript could be lost, stolen or sold to a collector.”


Manuscripts were packed in metal boxes to transport them from Timbuktu to Bamako, Mali. The books will be sorted, cleaned, cataloged and photographed.

Benedictines are known for their commitment to manuscripts, Father Stewart said, and HMML’s work ensures that the digital images will remain available, hopefully for centuries. The Malian project and an Ethiopian one that began in the 1970s preserve the extraordinary richness and depth of African documents.

Coifman is pleased about HMML’s involvement in manuscripts of Timbuktu. “Their work brings greater access to and builds up our knowledge of Africa.”

“Like the Bible which ‘speaks’ to people over time,” Father Stewart said, “scholars studying these manuscripts will have different issues they want the documents to ‘speak’ to.

“When scholars study the digitized material, they might recognize a different version of a text, one they’d heard about but never seen. “That’s where the exciting discoveries are.”


The great Mosque of Djenné, Mali, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The mosque is the largest mudbrick structure in the world.