The Last Working Copyist in Mali Is Trying To Save Timbuktu’s Manuscripts

180,000 medieval manuscripts are housed in Timbuktu, and only 23,000 of those ancient writings have ever been catalogued

Calligraphy from a 15th century copy of the Qur’an. Photo: The Chester Beatty Library

In Bamako, Mali’s dusty capital, a man sits hunched over piles of parchments. He is Boubacar Sadeck, an artisanal copyist of 16th century manuscripts, the last of his kind known to still work in the country, writes the The Christian Science Monitor.

Since violence engulfed the West African nation last April, Sadeck has fled his native Timbuktu and begun to fear for the approximately 180,000 medieval manuscripts that city houses. Only 23,000 of those ancient writings have been catalogued, documenting topics ranging from philosophy to mathematics to law, thanks to a past rich in trade.

In 1591, Timbuktu entered into a long decline after Morocco invaded and trans-Saharan caravans gave way to trade by sea. For calligraphers, it was all downhill from there.

By the time Mr. Sadeck, the copyist, got a taste for calligraphy as a boy, the tradition was all but extinct.

It was his uncle who taught him to make ink from charcoal, powdered stones, and gum Arabic, and to arrange lines of elegant Arabic script in neat blocks on paper and animal hide parchment.

When he grew up he worked for six years in commerce as an assistant to a small-time merchant, whose death in 2000 pitched him into unemployment.

“I was in the street,” Sadeck says. “I didn’t know what to do.”

It was then that his uncle suggested he start work as a copyist. Commissioned by the city’s libraries to reproduce their works, he has also built a business selling copies to mainly Western tourists – gaining a unique erudition in the process.

But when a military coup erupted last spring, tourism, along with Sadeck’s livelihood, dried up almost overnight. He packed up fifty manuscripts while his librarian colleague rounded up thousands more, arranging for them to be hidden in private homes. Now, Sadeck runs Safekeeping and Promotion of Manuscripts for the Defense of Islamic Culture, an NGO that seeks to care for manuscripts, in the capital.

So far, however, work has been slow coming, threatening to drive Mali’s last copyist to close up shop for good and symbolically end the country’s era of calligraphic art.

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