Precious cultural heritages are constantly under the threat of eradication from intolerant religious radicals.
Case in point: Two years ago radical Islamist invaders occupied the city of Timbuktu in Mali, West Africa for 10 months. While in control there, they conducted a sickening assault on that city’s monuments, shrines, religious sites and manuscripts. They were out to destroy anything that did not fit into their narrow and twisted interpretations of Islamic teachings.
In January, Mali troops assisted by French soldiers retook the city. Before fleeing north, the rebels set fire to the Ahmed Baba Institute, which housed many thousands of historically important manuscripts, dating as far back as the 13th Century. Fortunately, thanks to the dedicated but dangerous work of so many people, the manuscripts had been smuggled out of the Institute and other places in Timbuktu and squirreled away for hiding in various faraway places. The rebels succeeded in destroying only an estimated 2,000 manuscripts of the 300,000 that were saved. Many foot lockers stuffed with texts were smuggled out of the city, sometimes right under the noses of the nasty rebels.
Timbuktu is a very dry, hot place on the southern edge of the Sahara Desert. Its aridity is a major factor in why those manuscripts lasted so long in good condition. The city was a major stop on ancient trade routes and a book exchange there flourished – thus the extraordinary collections of manuscripts on subjects that include religion, astronomy, medicine, commerce, diplomatic relations and Arabic linguistics.
In their hiding places, the manuscripts are in danger of deteriorating from mold because they are in humid areas, unlike the preservative aridity of their long-time home, Timbuktu.
Knowing time is of the essence, knowledge-loving people from throughout the world are coming to the rescue. Some of those heroes include the staff of the Hill Museum and Manuscript Library right here at St. John’s University. Recently, the Rev. Columba Stewart, HMML executive director, returned with a team of workers to Bamako, Mali. There they have set up two digitizing studios to copy manuscripts. They’re also doing training sessions for local librarians who will continue to digitize all the manuscripts smuggled out of Timbuktu earlier.
Enlightened people and organizations from many countries are paying for the rescue and preservation of that treasured cultural heritage.
The gratifying result is copies of all of those manuscripts will be preserved digitally forever, safe from the vagaries of the weather or fires or the wanton destruction by rebels determined to destroy what they don’t understand and do not want to understand. Those forces of ignorance and intolerance have been beaten back, at least for now. And the best outcome is there is no way those wreckers can destroy digitized copies all over the world, including at the St. John’s Hill library, which houses one of the most magnificent collections of manuscripts and copies of manuscripts in the world. The HMML is completely dedicated to preserving manuscripts, especially those in threatened places throughout the world, such as Timbuktu. The library contains more than 140,000 medieval, renaissance and early-modern texts from Europe, Africa, the Middle East and India. It’s an ongoing labor of love by scholars passionately dedicated to keeping alive the shining torch of culture, enlightenment and civilization.
Such courageous acts of preserving knowledge has made our civilization possible. During the so-called Dark Ages, for example, monks in monasteries throughout Europe laboriously, day and night, copied ancient manuscripts, often having to hide their work when knowledge-hating barbarians invaded to wreak havoc. Thanks to the labor of those copyist monks, ancient knowledge, most of which would have been forever lost, was later disseminated, including the works of the ancient Greeks, Romans and Arabic philosophers, all of whose ideas led to the Age of Enlightenment and made possible our modern world. Later, the invention of the printing press was another great advancement, making multiple copies of books possible and thus making it more difficult for plunderers to destroy them. That goes for works of art, too, as evidenced in the current movie, “The Monuments Men,” which is about efforts to save European art treasures (paintings and sculptures) from the destructive, plundering, thieving Nazis in World War II.
In a very real sense, the history of the world has always been a struggle between good and evil, life and death, tolerance and intolerance, enlightenment and ignorance. Every time enlightenment wins out, as it did in Timbuktu, we should shout our praises to the skies and give our thanks to these intrepid, courageous preservationists who are the true heroes of civilization.