The Arab as “white foreigner” – the contested heritage of Timbuktu

Manuscripts of Timbuktu
A Treasure of Timbuktu

The legendary city of Timbuktu – a center for trade and learning for centuries and is the home of the oldest library south of the Sahara. Now, African and Saudi donors are joined in a contest to reframe the cultural heritage of a continent:

No one in Timbuktu has forgotten how the Moroccans conquered the city, plundered the libraries and dragged off the best scholars to Fes. Ahmed Baba, the philosopher, in chains! This is a source of embarrassment in Morocco today but the stolen manuscripts have yet to be returned to Timbuktu.

‘We were also colonised by the Arabs,’ says Mohamed Dicko, director of the Ahmed Baba Institute. ‘It was an intellectual, cultural colonisation and it is still at work today in the notion that everything good about Islam came from the Arabs. It is like during the French colonial era when school children were taught only French writers.’ Soon, for the first time, texts in Arabic by native Mali authors will be appearing in textbooks, he says.

Read more about the manuscripts, architecture, and cultural legacy of Timbuktu at Sign and Sight.