Revered documents of medieval Islam have been getting another chance at life in Africa’s Sahel region. And the site of a great 14th-century mosque is being protected so it can be studied, too.
Cultural Preservation, organizations and government agencies in Mauritania, Mali, Niger and Nigeria have begun to preserve vast collections of Islamic and other documents that date as far back as the 11th century, thanks in part to a series of grants from the U.S. Ambassadors Fund. The United States, through the same Fund, has provided equipment and expertise for the work for a decade.
The collections reflect the power the region held as far back as 1,000 years ago. Mali was the birthplace of three great empires from the 11th to the 16th century, and those empires — Ghana, Mali and Songhoy — built grand monuments and supported Islamic scholarship.
Some of the monuments, such as Mali’s Mosque of Djinguereber in Timbuktu and the Askia Tomb in Gao, have been preserved and still command notice. But the vast mosque that architect Abu Ishaq Ibrahim es-Saheli built for the emperor Kankou Moussa in Gao in 1324, after the emperor’s pilgrimage to Mecca, gradually became a victim of disuse and urbanization. By the time Mali’s government had begun a rescue program for the mosque in 2003, squatters had taken over its ruins.
Excavations turned up many important artifacts and long-buried walls and rooms. And the Ambassadors Fund provided a grant to protect the site so it could be documented and enjoyed over the years.
The grant paid for the construction of a protective shelter around and over the site that offers tourists a safer way to view the site and explore Mali’s cultural heritage. The grant also provided for tourist-friendly signs and a colorful booklet that explains the site and the archaeological work taking place there.
The work on Islamic documents, meanwhile, seeks to preserve them and put them within easier reach of researchers who want to read and study them without subjecting them to further wear — and without requiring that they be sent to a collection in one of the wealthier Islamic countries.
In Kaduna, Nigeria, for example, the Ambassadors Fund grant helped Michaelle Biddle, a U.S. expert on the preservation of manuscripts working at the Wesleyan University Library in Middletown, Connecticut, run a three-day training program for workers and scholars at the Arewa House, the Centre for Historical Documentation and Research at Ahmadu Bello University. Biddle also visited the Nigerian National Archives and other libraries and museums elsewhere in northern Nigeria to assess the state of their collections of thousands of documents and the conditions in which they were kept.
Biddle found severe problems in many of the collections, with damage done or threatened by heat, humidity, mold, harsh light, abrasive dust, insect infestations, chemical fumes, a lack of ventilation and contact between fragile paper and such corrosive materials as leather and acidic paper and cardboard. She offered recommendations for storing the documents and for making them accessible to the public with far less risk of damage.
A second American led a three-day workshop at Arewa House on cataloging and digitizing Arabic manuscripts. The Ambassadors Fund covered the costs of computers and scanning equipment, as well as computer training.
As a result, Islamic and other historical documents that had been too fragile for much handling can now be examined halfway around the world.
The Ambassadors Fund has supported similar efforts in Mali, Niger and Mauritania. The project at the Mosque of Djinguereber in Timbuktu helped preserve 1,500 Islamic manuscripts, many from the 13th and 14th centuries. The city was at the height of its importance in the Islamic world then, as a trading post between West Africa and Europe and as a center of scholarship. Many of the texts, used by Islamic diplomats who traveled between Timbuktu and Mecca, teach conflict resolution and tolerance.
The Ambassadors Fund grant paid for the restoration of several rooms within the mosque library that house the collection, including the installation of lighting and secure bookshelves and display cases to protect the collection, improved ventilation and creation of a catalog of the manuscripts.
In Mauritania, the Advanced Institute for Islamic Studies and Research received a series of grants to conserve and photograph documents, some dating to the 11th century. And in Niger, more than 4,000 documents, some dating to the 14th century, were conserved and scanned for public use.