04/25/2012 01:07 pm ET | Updated Jun 25, 2012

Targeting Timbuktu

For most Americans the name Timbuktu triggers the notion of ultimate remoteness, a windswept desert oasis situated at the very edge of our romantic imagination. When I tell people I spent many years in the West African Sahel, they invariably ask:

Did you ever make it to Timbuktu?"

Since April 1st of this year, Timbuktu has been become more than figment of the imagination, for the fabled desert city, which is situated in northern Mali, has come under the control of two rival groups of rebellious Tuaregs, the famous blue men of the Sahara, who have long lived in the vast stretches of desert in and around Timbuktu. One group of rebels, the MNLA (The Azawad National Liberation Movement), has declared an independent state. The other group, the Ansar Dine (Defenders of the Faith), has alleged ties to al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.

This military occupation is not only bad news for the people who live in Timbuktu, many of whom are not Tuaregs, but also for its world-renowned centers of learning that house precious manuscripts, some of which date to the 13th century. Old Timbuktu families, the custodians of these historical treasures, have hidden them to protect the documents, many of which are in frail condition, from being destroyed or stolen. It is estimated that there are least 150,000 of these historic documents in Timbuktu.

Professor Shamil Jeppie, an associate professor at Cape Town University's Institute for Humanities in Africa, who is in contact with some of the Timbuktu curators, told Reuters that so far most of manuscripts have been spared. He is not optimist about their fate, however. "I have no faith in the rebels," he told Reuters. "They may have an educated leadership, but they are sending in footsoldiers who are illiterate and if they want something they will take it... They won't have respect for paper culture."

There are other factors that give pause. Timbuktu has long been a city of Songhay people, descendants of great 15th century scholars and kings. The Songhay spoken there is called kwaara ciine, or "city talk." In the region, people from Timbuktu are often seen as a kind of urban elite, people in love with books, learning and cultural refinement. What's more, the history between the peoples of the region, the sedentary Songhay and the nomadic Tuareg, has been one of longstanding enmity. Indeed, the combination of social difference, historical enmity, new nationalism, and the narrow-minded gaze of semi-literate or illiterate Islamists spells trouble for the treasured manuscripts of Timbuktu.

Why should we care about medieval documents locked away in a remote city in northern Mali?

For scholars of Africa and Islam, of course, they are of enormous importance. In my studies of the Songhay people, I've made use to two manuscripts, the Tarikh es Soudan, written in the early 17th century, and the Tarikh al Fataash, compiled in the late 17th century. These works give deep documentation to the history of the Songhay Empire. In some passages the authors give us a glimpse of the nature of precolonial social life in West Africa. Both works demonstrate powerfully that Songhay, a medieval African empire (1464-1599), had a sophisticated bureaucracy replete with a variety of ministries, provincial governments, and armed forces -- a political structure whose complexity rivaled those of Songhay's European counterparts.

That resource is wonderful for scholars interested in the African past, but there is a more profound reason to save the manuscripts of Timbuktu. In this day and age we associate Africa with civil wars, brutality, refugees, and despots. We spend more time and energy focusing on vile atrocities committed by the likes of Joseph Kony than on paying tribute to the historical contributions that African people have made to our cultural heritage -- arguably, a far more important enterprise. The libraries of Timbuktu symbolize the rich heritage of all things African. Their destruction would be a devastating cultural loss that would reinforce a warped and deeply embedded perception of social and cultural life in Africa.

Although Timbuktu remains a remote outpost of cultural life, readers can help to preserve the city's cultural heritage by going to the website of Boston University's West African Research Association. There, they can choose to sign the following petition:

In recent days, fighting in and around Timbuktu has led to serious concerns about the safety of the tens of thousands of ancient manuscripts there. What is in danger is the written legacy attesting to an unprecedented intellectual and cultural expansion over the past centuries. This intellectual capital is a reflection of the continued contribution of Africans to world civilization. It is also a reflection of the pioneering place of Africa in the very foundations of writing and the spiritual and cultural development of mankind. If this heritage were to disappear, the development of African historiography would be seriously compromised and an important part of the world memory would be annihilated.

Given this situation, we address a solemn appeal to the belligerents to respect and protect the cultural heritage property held in Timbuktu, including elements of the World Heritage List of UNESCO and ancient manuscript collections in libraries, in accordance with the International Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the event of conflict.

Each signature will help to protect the cultural and historical treasures of Timbuktu.