The government of Mali instituted the Ahmed Baba Centre for Documentation and Research, or CEDRAB, the abbreviated French title it was formally referred to, in Timbuktu in 1973. The origins of the centre go back to a meeting convened by Unesco, in 1967 in Timbuktu, when planning its multi-volume history of Africa. At the end of the meeting, a resolution was passed calling on the government of Mali to establish a centre for the preservation of Arabic manuscripts in Timbuktu. The centre was built primarily with funding received from Kuwait and Saudi Arabia and immediately began its collection of manuscripts.

The Ahmed Baba Institute of Higher Learning and Islamic Research currently holds about 30 000-40 000 manuscripts, collected through the efforts of some outstanding individuals, including Dr Mahmoud Zubayr, the centre’s first director, and Abdul Kader Haidara, who started out working for CEDRAB, before going on to establish his family library. This number of manuscripts is still a conservative quantity, considering the estimated number of extant manuscripts in the region. The Al-Furqan Islamic Heritage Foundation has published a catalogue, incomplete as yet, listing about 9000 manuscripts from the CEDRAB collection.

Building the Collection

In the period between 1973 and 1984 CEDRAB had only managed to acquire 3500 manuscripts. In 1984, Abdul Kader joined CEDRAB and, because of his potential and his influential family background, was given the task of gathering more manuscripts. His search began in Timbuktu, where, despite facing many difficulties, he contacted family members, buying what he could. He would sometimes pay US$200 for a single-page document and sometimes US$300 for a complete manuscript. The value of the manuscripts varied, but in general, history manuscripts were the most valuable, followed by ornate manuscripts, complete works that were very old, works of local scholarship, historical and political correspondence and, lastly, undated and anonymous manuscripts.

This search for manuscripts was then extended to the surrounding areas of Timbuktu. These expeditions in the outer regions extended from 1984 to 1987. Abdul Kader went to great lengths to accommodate manuscript owners, sometimes even buying them livestock, which would have been more valuable to some, than paying them with money. His success in the villages was outstanding. In some cases, he collected 2000 manuscripts from a single village.

The manuscripts at the Ahmed Baba Institute were also sourced from all over Mali and as far as the borders of Mauritania, Burkina Faso, Senegal, Guinea, Niger, Algeria and the Ivory Coast. Abdul Kader’s immense efforts were essential in this acquisition of 16 000 manuscripts for the centre, between 1984 and 2002.

After a very successful period under the directorship of Dr Mahmoud A. Zouber, the IHERI-AB underwent several changes in leadership: from Dr Mohammed Gallah Dicko to Dr Abdoulkadri Idrissa Maïga, to the current director, Dr Mohamed Diagayété.

South Africa-Mali Collaboration

In 2009, the new building of the Ahmed Baba Institute was officially opened. It is the product of a bilateral agreement between the South African and Malian governments, which began in 2001, after former South African president, Thabo Mbeki’s visit to Timbuktu. The building is one of several conditions of the agreement, all of which aim to promote the conservation, research and promotion of the manuscripts as African heritage. The new building not only contains state-of-the-art resources for the proper storage and preservation of the manuscripts but also has facilities for researchers, including conference rooms and a lecture theatre, a library and accommodation for researchers from abroad.

Post-2012 Crisis

During the 2012 crisis, the new IHERI-AB building in Timbuktu was occupied by the insurgents. However, the majority of the manuscripts had not been transferred to the new location and were still housed in the old Institute building. It was those manuscripts, an estimated 20 000, which were removed from Timbuktu and smuggled to Bamako, where they are found to this day. In the new building, much of the costly equipment for digitisation and conservation was destroyed and stolen during the ten-month occupation. In addition, an estimated 4 000 manuscripts which were in located in the digitisation and conservation rooms were also lost or stolen, their fate uncertain to this day. Luckily, the majority of the manuscripts housed in the new building were kept securely in the basement storage, and they were thus spared the same fate, and are today still conserved in this building, effectively constituting a split collection between Bamako and Timbuktu.