afrol News, 27 May - Mali's famous old city of Timbuktu this weekend will see the opening of a new building housing and restoring a collection of an estimated 700,000 ancient manuscripts, recognised as one of Africa's principal cultural heritages.
The project ending in this weekend's inauguration ceremony is of great prestige and seen as a turning point in African cultural policies. The new document centre is the first-ever cultural project of the New Economic Partnership of Africa's Development (NEPAD), includes funds and training from South Africa and Tunisia and will enable Mali to maintain and restore its ancient but fragile treasure.
Officials from South Africa, which paid for the construction, and Mali will on Saturday inaugurate the Ahmed Baba Institute of Higher Learning and Islamic Research in Timbuktu. The building was constructed "to properly house the manuscripts collected across the city and surrounding regions with the effort to preserve Africa's heritage and intellectual property," according to official sources.
The pan-African engagement in the preservation of the manuscripts was motivated by their historical value and anticipated contribution to the re-writing of the African history from an African perspective. Official sources say the documents are "immensely significant to the continued re-evaluation of Africa's history, culture and contributions to the African Renaissance."
While the national archives in almost every African country are in a state of decay, with important documents to map the colonial and post-independence history of Africa being lost each and every day, the Timbuktu project marks a turning point in preserving sources to Africa's rich history by indigenous means.
South African conservators from the National Archives have since 2001 worked closely with the Tunisian government and provided training for Malian specialists both in South Africa and Mali. In South Africa, the training designed around the needs of the manuscripts mostly on preventive conservation, was provided to more than 10 Malian conservators. Also, a total of 14 officials received training in conservation at the Ahmed Baba Institute.
With the new document centre in Timbuktu, Malian conservators will have obtained the needed training and an up to date building to be able to restore and maintain the important and unique manuscript collection. The building includes facilities for conservation and climate control to preserve the ancient paper properly.
Until now, the Timbuktu manuscripts relied on several foreign institutions to save as many as possible of the most damaged objects. A large number of historic documents from the 13th to 16th century are on the verge of being lost if not treated with urgency.
There now exist plans for exhibitions of the manuscripts for tourists in the new building, along with a research centre and library. The library is to house between 200,000 and 300,000 manuscripts until now locked away in 24 private libraries in and around Timbuktu.
The Timbuktu manuscripts are the principal written sources to West Africa's old history, and most have never been studied by modern scholars. They date back from the time when Timbuktu was one of the world's leading cultural and religious centres, hosting the ancient empires of Ghana, Mali, and Songhai. The documents include the highest level of science from their era, demonstrating Timbuktu's importance as an intellectual centre.
During the last centuries, many documents have been lost due to accidents, ignorance or robbery. Still, original Timbuktu documents are being offered on the black market in the region. The manuscripts, along with the entire ancient city of Timbuktu, have been declared world cultural heritage by UNESCO.
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