Timbuktu, the remote and ancient Sahara Desert city that was until recently controlled by Al Qaeda-affiliated groups, is not often thought of as an outpost of Jewish life. Yet this West African town of some 55,000, in northern Mali, is still home to an estimated 1,000 descendants of Jews who converted to Islam centuries ago.Related: How Timbuktu’s heritage was saved in rice sacks and canoes (Alice Fordham , The National)
In three villages near the city, local residents still refer to these descendants as “the Jews,” but visitors and activists report that Malians of Jewish ancestry did not suffer any form of discrimination, even with the infiltration of violent Islamist extremists to the region. It also appears that the ancient documents that serve as proof of Jewish life in Timbuktu survived the recent attacks on the city’s historic library.
Interest in this Jewish history peaked two decades ago, when a local scholar, armed with ancient trade documents containing Hebrew script, launched a research project that documented the Jewish roots of some local residents. This ignited a search for identity among some of these individuals, and brought a degree of international attention to their existence. But mutual disappointment followed amid disputes over financial aid from Jews overseas. Activists on both sides have since given up on reconnecting residents of Timbuktu to their Jewish roots.
The documents establishing the Jewish connection to Timbuktu are believed to be safe. The fire set to the library by rebels destroyed many Muslim manuscripts, but most were spirited to safety beforehand and hidden by local families devoted to their preservation over many generations. The documents relating to Jewish activity in the region are believed to be safe in the hands of Haidara or in possession of these villagers.
"We are very proud of what we did," said Khalif Al Hadji, an archivist. "We did it for three reasons. The first, is that if we lose these manuscripts, we won't find them again. Two, we work in the library. Three, we are all Malians and we know exactly how valuable these manuscripts are to us."Background here and links. Still hoping for some word on ancient literary texts such as Old Testament pseudepigrapha somewhere among those Timbuktu manuscripts.
Mr Cisse added proudly that the rich archive of thousands of books belie the myth that Africa relies on oral tradition as opposed to written history and scholarship. "It's enormous," he said. "The culture, the history."
Even as the men spoke, in a courtyard of the new building, ashy fragments of burnt manuscripts eddied in the breeze. Just before a French-led intervention had pushed the militants out of town, some of the rebels pulled around 1,000 manuscripts off the shelves and built a bonfire. The charred scripts are still discernible, but the treasures are lost.
French soldiers have now left Timbuktu, and there are fears that the militant Islamists could creep back, and a similar fate could await any of the manuscripts returned to the institute. Under the circumstances, the manuscripts are unlikely to go home for some time, said Shamil Jeppie, head of the Tombouctou Manuscripts Project at the University of Cape Town.