On the paper trail

In popular culture Timbuktu has long been that mythical place in the middle of nowhere. Scholars have recently been rediscovering the literary riches of the history of Timbuktu, well known in southern Europe and the medieval Muslim world as a centre of trade in gold, often exchanged for salt.

Very little, however, has been mentioned of the trade in paper. Yet paper has been recorded as among the most valuable of commodities from outside. Leo Africanus wrote in 1526: ‘The rich king of Tombuto [Timbuktu] hath many plates and sceptres of gold, some where of weigh 1 300 pounds. And he keeps a magnificent and well-furnished court — here are a great store of doctors, judges, priests and other learned men, that are bountifully maintained at the king’s expense — and hither are brought diverse manuscripts or written books out of Barbarie, which are sold for more money than any other merchandise.”

Timbuktu manuscripts have been passed down through the centuries and generations as a form of inheritance. The extant volume of manuscripts speaks clearly of the value of the written knowledge of medi- eval Timbuktu. Centres of learning such as Sankoré are once said to have attracted thousands of scholars from the region and from North Africa. The increased demand for paper led to interesting compromises from European manufacturers at the time.

Mary Minicka, a conservator at the Conservation Centre, documentation section at the library of Parliament in Cape Town, notes: ‘During the 14th century Islamic countries became net importers of European paper — to the detriment of the local/Islamic paper-manufacturing industry. The European papermakers even went as far as creating Islamically acceptable watermarks (crescent moons, et cetera).”

Conservation of these manuscripts, which includes texts on astronomy, medicine, mathematics and law among other subjects, is a vital aspect of the South Africa-Mali Project. The project concerns itself primarily with the manuscripts at the Ahmed Baba Centre, a library in Timbuktu.


Initially established in 1973 through funding from Kuwait, on the recommendation of Unesco, it collects and houses the manuscripts from the Timbuktu region and in December last year it recorded 19 454 manuscripts, the oldest being a gold leaf copy of a Qur’an from 1210.

President Thabo Mbeki, inspired by this ‘intellectual treasure” on his visit to Timbuktu in November 2001, initiated an agreement between the two countries, with South Africa assisting in the conservation of the manuscripts and the training of Malian conservators.

The larger vision is more ambitious and entails the construction of a new library facility to house the manuscripts in a climatically controlled building.

Between April and July last year South Africa hosted the first group of trainees. The four young trainees were selected because of prior basic training in printing and binding. They spent two months under the watchful eye of conservator Alexio Motsi — coordinator of the conservation programme — at conservation labs of the National Archives in Pretoria and the National Library in Cape Town.

Motsi commented on the challenge in training the conservators: Africa preservation skills ‘are very limited. We have realigned the skills in traditional crafts to assist in proper conservation. The training is focused on respect and understanding of the materials and an independent critical response to problems that they may be faced with.”

The trainees learned the basics in book and paper conservation, with emphasis on preventive conservation. Included in the programme was the design and construction of rare book boxes to protect the manuscripts from the harsh climatic conditions of Timbuktu. These boxes provide a micro-conservation environment by reducing the direct handling of the actual manuscripts, insulating them from termites and the fine desert sand of Timbuktu, and strengthening the manuscript from any weight placed directly on it.

In December last year a conservation team of Motsi, Minicka and Oswald Cupido (National Library), accompanied by me, held a two-week follow-up workshop with the trainees who visited us earlier that year.

The team had to deal with the challenge of an additional five trainee artisans that had been employed by the library and, in total, nine trainees benefited under the supervision of the South African conservators.

By the end of two weeks the trainees were making conservation boxes independently with imported conservation materials of the highest quality.

Motsi and Minicka gave a demonstration on how to handle and care for a manuscript to an audience of about 70 people working with manuscripts. This included researchers, conservators, librarians and members of the Timbuktu manuscripts community, some of whom represented the prestigious Haidara and Kati private libraries.

The South African conservators have also been on a learning curve with this project. Minicka explains: ‘The project is a singular opportunity for expanding and disseminating conservation knowledge and skills within the conservation fraternity in South Africa, and certainly within the wider continental context. To be involved in conserving a record as old and important as that found in Timbuktu is an immense privilege.”

This month the four trainees and one additional trainee arrived for six weeks of the second phase of the conservation training. A research PhD student, Mohamed Diagayeté, accompanied the group for two weeks to work with Shamil Jeppie, in the department of historical studies at the University of Cape Town.

Jeppie’s research team is focusing on legal materials from Timbuktu, but stresses that ‘meaningful historical research on the contents of the manuscripts now and in the long term depends on proper conservation and archiving right now, for we risk losing materials the more we delay and neglect conservation.”

Riason Naidoo is project manager of the SA-Mali Project and is based at the National Archives in the Department of Arts and Culture in Pretoria

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