Thursday, February 07, 2013

Djenne, the Malian mud city that the world forgot.

South Africa as well as other countries notably the U.S. Spain and Norway  has been much involved with the manuscripts of Timbuktu and given large funding to the city for many years. In the wake of the recent events in Timbuktu, I have been asked to write something about Djenne and our manuscript project here for the University of Cape Town. This is what I wrote- (Jeremiah, do you think you could send it on to Irina Bokova?)

In the midst  of Mali’s sudden emergence in the world ‘s focus, the Unesco World Heritage city of Djenne sits tranquil in the heart of the Niger delta, just 120 k south of Sevare, the  launching pad for the continued French air strikes into the north of Mali, where pockets of Islamist rebels are still present.
Yelfa , Grand Marabout de Djenne, whose father served as the town’s imam. laughed when asked what he would do if the Islamists came to Djenne. ‘I will just continue as normal’. Our fathers have seen empires rise and fall here, but Djenne does not change’.
Djenne, with its  monumental mosque and its unrivalled Sahel mud architecture has traditionally been regarded as the ‘twin sister’ of Timbuktu, with which it shares a glorious past  as an important city of scholarship and commerce. Interestingly, while the world regards Timbuktu as the proverbial ‘end of the world’, for Malians it is Djenne that occupies this position.  Less famous than Timbuktu, it is nevertheless much older, and the archaeological site of Djenne Djenno,  the first town of Djenne about a kilometre from the present town  goes back to 250 BC, which makes it arguably the oldest city of West Africa.
Djenne’s past is also its present, and virtually nothing has changed for centuries  in this mud city, where  the Marabouts  teach their ‘talibes’ or ‘garibous’ to recite the Koran by rote  in the 50 Djenne Koran Schools, and where the ancient families of Djenne have had a tradition of copying Arabic  manuscripts for at least as long as their brothers in Timbuktu.  Great deposits of manuscripts have been found in Djenne. These manuscripts have  until recently been kept in private collections, but are  now gradually  being transferred to the Djenne Manuscript Library, a handsome traditional mud building next to the Great Mosque, built in 2006 with funding from the European Union and the American Embassy.
Djenne’s deposit of  manuscripts has  suffered by a certain amount of  prospecting carried out by the Ahmed Baba Institute before the building of Djenne’s own manuscript library.  In addition about ten years ago a first rudimentary   appraisal of the Djenne manuscripts was carried out by SAVAMA of Timbuktu. It was then estimated that Djenne holds in excess of 10 000 manuscripts. At this point more manuscripts were bought and removed to Timbuktu. 
Djenne is nevertheless  still a very important  depository  of  Arabic manuscripts, and the Djenne Manuscript Library has  become the communal depository of Djenne’s manuscripts, now holding about 4000 manuscripts as over 60 Djenne families have entrusted the library with their private collections for safe keeping . The collections remain in the families’ ownership and they are kept intact and stored as family collections.  An ambitious programme of digitization of the Djenne Manuscripts is now underway, funded  by  the British Library’s Endangered Archive’s Programme (EAP).  This week 120 000 images, the fruit of 16 months of work,  was delivered safely to London as a security measure after the news of the destruction of some of the manuscripts of Timbuktu by the Islamists. In excess of 300 acid free storage boxes have also been made on site to store the most precious manuscripts.
The subject matter of the Djenne manuscripts is similar to that of Timbuktu, although there is  a  larger number of esoteric manuscripts  mostly relating to ‘Maraboutage’, an Islamic form of Magic still practised in Djenne, and for which the town is revered and feared throughout Mali and beyond. The Djenne esoteric manuscripts  can be divided into two main groups: they are either talismans or instructions  on various subjects such as traditional healing etc. Such manuscripts have been regarded as difficult or near impossible to access due to their secret knowledge status. It is therefore quite remarkable that such a large number have been made available.
It is difficult to estimate the importance of the Djenne manuscripts- this will have to be discovered by future scholars who will use the archive.   A rudimentary first website has been put up at
Meanwhile a Stanford  PHD candidate of Islamic history who spent a few weeks at the library  last year  had the following comment:

 ‘the library contains a wealth of documents relating to Sufism and dating to the eighteenth century or earlier which will be invaluable for clarifying the nature of Sufism in the region during that period.’

 It is beyond doubt  that Djenne and the surrounding villages  still  contain a wealth of ancient  Arabic  manuscripts, many of them in danger from termites and other menaces, and some of them perhaps holding clues about the past of West Africa, the history of  which was  believed to be unwritten and  handed down by oral tradition only until these Malian manuscripts started to be discovered and taken seriously only  a few decades ago.
The project with the British Library’s Endangered Archive’s  Programme will  come to an end at the end of July. There is a dedicated team of seven  workers including 3 digitization workers and 2 archivists who would like to continue their work.  The Library is  actively seeking funding for the continuation of the digitization Programme and for the beginning of other important tasks such as conservation and cataloguing of this important heritage. 
There is now major focus on the Timbuktu manuscripts. Irina Bokova, the director general of Unesco has pledged large funds for the reconstruction of the ravaged cultural heritage in Timbuktu, including the manuscripts. Could Djenne this time benefit by  a little crumb that might fall from her twin sister’s table?

 Sophie Sarin, Project leader  Endangered Archives Programme  EAP488

Djenne, 6 February 2013


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