Speech by Minister Pallo Jordan: Introducing the Timbuktu Manuscripts, National Library, Pretoria

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22 Sep 2008

Thank You Dr Dominy,

Your Excellency, Ambassador Coulibaly, Ambassador of Mali to the Republic of South Africa ,

Professor Nkondo, Chairman of the South African Library Council,

Mr John Tsebe, CEO of the South African National Library,

Your Excellencies, Members of the Diplomatic Corps,

Distinguished Guests,

Ladies and Gentlemen,

It’s a great honour for me to be standing before you this evening where we are marking a milestone and celebrating an important achievement: The Launch of the Timbuktu Manuscripts Exhibition at our National Library tonight is a milestone; and we are celebrating an African achievement.

The manuscripts we are putting on display are from the historic Ahmed Baba library in Timbuktu . They are but relatively small selection from among many thousands of items in the Timbuktu archives. These manuscripts from the library and the surrounding settlements, were rescued from the termites and the elements thanks to the intervention of President Thabo Mbeki. Because he immediately recognised their significance both for Africa and for humanity at large, he committed South Africa to the preservation and dissemination of these writings. It was to become one of the first NEPAD projects. Our National Library, South African archivists and scholars have played a major role in that effort and I take the opportunity to thank them all on behalf of the nation and on behalf of the African continent.

We have here 40 items, of various sizes and content, that testify to both the intellectual and artistic capacity of a west African civilization few, yes, very few, South Africans have even heard of. Islamic scholarship in Africa is little known. I would even hazard that once the study of these manuscripts has been completed, their contents will compel us to rethink a great deal of what we have been taught about Africa, especially pre-colonial Africa , its peoples and our culture.

When President Mbeki was first introduced to these manuscripts, he was convinced that something serious and effective should be done about them. Tonight’s event is as much a tribute to medieval African scholarship as it is to President Mbeki’s foresight and vision.

During the 7th century the prophet Muhammad and his followers were responsible for the emergence and rapid growth of the new religion, Islam. This was probably one of the more important transformative movements that shaped the modern world and left an indelible impression on the “old world” of the Middle East, Central Asia, Europe and Africa .

The impact of Islam on these societies may be measured by extent of the empire the Muslims created. Within fifty years of the prophet’s death it spanned from the shores of the Atlantic in the west to the borderlands of India in the east.

Islam’s abiding historical influence owed more to its cultural impact than to the sword. The speed with which the new faith spread betrays the moribund character of the social orders it overwhelmed. But Islam replaced them with thriving urban - centred communities peopled by merchants, guilds of craftsmen and artisans, scholars, jurists, poets and writers. With Islam came the Quran that stimulated mastery of the art of writing and reading.

Islam extolls industry, thrift, cleanliness, imposed a number of disciplines on its adherents, and enjoined charity. In addition to what was produced within their far flung empire, the Muslims were also avid traders who dominated both the Indian Ocean and the land routes across Asia and Africa into western Europe. The Mediterranean, once dominated by the fleets of Rome and Byzantium , became a Muslim lake for five hundred years. The opulence of the courts in Andalusia in the west, and those of the Sultanates of Indonesia in the east, were made possible by both the hard work of indigenous artisans and by the prosperous trans-continental trade routes controlled by Muslim merchants.

It was trade, the visiting of distant lands, becoming accustomed to the ways of strangers through commerce with peoples of diverse races that broadened the minds of the scholars of the Islamic world. In such a cosmopolitan universe the prejudices and limitations associated with life that does not extend far beyond the horizon, can be seen for what they are. Toleration, empathy and understanding for the views and faiths of others are more readily accepted in a cosmopolitan environment. The development of the critical faculties opened the door to the search for knowledge and for scientific thought.

Africa was the site of one of the earliest Muslim communities even prior to prophet’s emigration from Mecca to Medina . But many more African lands, north and south of the Sahara , came under the sway of Islam during its westward expansion. The Mahgreb became the staging post for the Muslim invasion of the Iberian peninsula, Sicily , Corsica and parts of Italy . From 711 until late into the 1400s Spain and various parts of the Iberian peninsula were ruled by the Muslim Moors from Africa . Moorish Spain , till this day, offers the visitor sites of breathtaking splendour.

At the height of its power the community of the faithful embraced blonde Caucasians from Europe, North Africa and parts of Asia; Africans of a multitude of hues from pitch black to tan; Mongoloid Uighurs, Indonesians and Malays; Indians, Persians, as well as the Arabs. For three centuries peace, prosperity and progress reigned in these Muslim territories only to be disrupted by Christian aggression, the Crusades, orchestrated from Europe during the 11th century. It was armies drawn from this tapestry of humanity who faced the equally diverse Crusader armies at the gates of Jerusalem .

As part of this multi-racial, multi-ethnic, cosmopolitan Muslim world, the intellectuals of the kingdoms of Mali and Songhay, took part in and contributed to its scholarship and research in astronomy; chemistry, zoology, botany ; they also engaged in its philosophical debates and participated in its jurisprudential disputes. The very materials they used tell us a great deal about the links within that world. Some of the paper used for this manuscripts bears watermarks from as far as Samarkand , Baghdad , Damascus and Cairo . The leather bindings come from Morrocco. These manuscripts are but a small sample of the wealth of human knowledge debated, studied and stored by the intellectuals of this continent.

To ensure that the valuable scholarship contained in these manuscripts will now be more effectively preserved for future generations, the South African National Library and its archival specialists trained Malian archivists in some of the latest techniques. Our National Library’s bookbinding section also assisted in the preparation of special storage cases of low acidity which will ensure that the papers used in these manuscripts survive longer.

This project and this exhibition are a re-affirmation of our African identity. I hope that the exhibition will enhance academic and public awareness of Africa 's literary heritage, and specifically the literary heritage associated with Islam.

In conclusion, let me thank and congratulate Dr Shamil Jeppie, the South African coordinator of research on the Timbuktu Manuscripts, the National Library and its staff, our National Archives and its staff, as well as all the other institutions who have made this exhibition possible.

I declare the exhibition open and invite all South Africans to come and view it. It is highly educative.

Thank You.