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Fighting threatens Islamic artifacts in troubled Timbuktu

March 19, 2013

WASHINGTON

Fighting in the Muslim country of Mali in western Africa has delayed the American tour of a unique exhibit featuring centuries-old texts and artifacts from Timbuktu, an ancient center of Islamic learning.

“The Legacy of Timbuktu” was scheduled to open April 20 at the Fort Worth Museum of Science and History in Texas, but curators from the International Museum of Muslim Cultures in Jackson, Miss., which is organizing the exhibit, could not travel to the Saharan city to retrieve several manuscripts and artifacts it planned to display.

Instead, the Fort Worth museum will host a “preview” exhibit featuring 10 manuscripts and several artifacts loaned from the Mississippi museum’s permanent Timbuktu collection. That exhibit opens June 1, while the traveling exhibit will start Jan. 1, 2015, said Okolo Rashid, executive director of the Mississippi museum.

The exhibit, curators hope, will undo stereotypes of illiterate African societies with only oral traditions, and introduce visitors to a little-known aspect of Islamic culture.

“We were very disappointed, but there was a lot of fighting, a lot of destruction, and there was no way we could go,” said Rashid. “Our main goal now is to get ready for June, but we also have to figure out when we can go to Mali.”

Although smaller than originally planned, the preview exhibit still includes a plethora of historic documents, including a 14th-century manuscript about Moses written by members of Timbuktu’s Jewish community, and another 14th-century text about interfaith relations. These manuscripts were loaned to the Jackson museum by the Mamma Haidara Memorial Library in Timbuktu, which is also helping organize the exhibit.

Some 1 million ancient documents have been discovered in Timbuktu in recent years, providing scholars with a treasure trove of ancient Islamic culture. That legacy, however, has been threatened by al-Qaida-linked extremists who last year seized control of large parts of Mali, including Timbuktu.

According to local residents, the extremists destroyed tens of thousands of centuries-old manuscripts and razed Muslim Sufi shrines, which extremists view as heretical.

The Malian army, aided by French and African Union soldiers, has in recent weeks recaptured most of the lost territory, but has also faced accusations of arbitrarily killing men with long beards and thawbs, long robes that are often worn by some observant Muslims.

The exhibit will also include videos and interactive displays that explore how Islam came to West Africa, Islamic-African culture, America's connections to Timbuktu, and demonstrations on how these manuscripts were produced in the 14th century.

Sponsors include the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Kellogg Foundation and the Nissan Foundation, among others.

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