On Friday, May 15, the Goldwater Library hosted a viewing and presentation of medieval Arabic manuscripts from West Africa. Staff from across the Museum--from curatorial deparments that included AAOA, Medieval, and Islamic, to the Objects and Paper Conservation departments and the Libraries--were invited to examine the works on display and share professional expertise with their West African counterparts. (See our earlier post.)
The event was coordinated with the Ford Foundation by Alisa LaGamma, Curator in the Department of the Arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas (AAOA).
The manuscripts, all drawn from the Mamma Haidara Library in Timbuktu, were brought to New York City by M. Abdel Kader Haïdara (left), curator of the library and Executive President of the Association Tombouctienne de Sauvegarde et de Valorisation des Manuscrits et pour la Défense de la Culture Islamique (SAVAMA-DCI).
He was accompanied by Margie Reese, Ford Program Officer, and Dr. Adhiambo Odaga, who heads Ford’s office in West Africa.
The sixteen manuscripts represented a wide-ranging sample of the over 5,000 manuscripts held by the Mamma Haidara Library, including treatises on the Qur'an, hadith, religion, mathematics, astronomy, prosody, government and history. The library, founded in the sixteenth century, has remained in the same family for its entire history. Mr. Haïdara is the ninth great-grandson of its founder. The oldest surviving manuscript in the library, a Qur'an, dates from 546 H. (CE 1151/52).
THE AFTERNOON'S PROGRAM began with a video showcasing the Association's modern conservation facilities, funded in part from a grant of the government of Dubai. Following the video Mr. Haïdara answered questions from the MMA staff on conservation methods and training as well as the composition of the paper used in medieval Timbuktu and materials used in the preservation process.
Mr. Haïdara walked the audience through the manuscripts on display, highlighting the scholarly nature of the work; its physical qualities such its construction, calligraphy and in some cases illumination; and its importance to both its original and modern-day readers.
Perhaps the most unusual as well as the most handsome manuscripts on display was a fifteenth-century edition of the Qur'an (left)--which Mr. Haïdara characterized as perhaps the most precious in the library's collection, both for its content and its beauty. All the more remarkable is its foundation: fish skin. Fish, unlike wood pulp, is a plentiful commodity in West Africa.
Another manuscript demonstrated the resourcefulness demanded by local scribes in light of the scarcity of paper. The treatise, on Arabic grammar, was written over the travel diaries of Major Alexander Gordon Laing (1793-1826), an English [Scottish, actually] traveler to the region reputed to be the first European to reach Timbuktu. Both texts were of comparable value to the contemporary scholar, asserted Mr. Haïdara.
After a question-and-answer session, the guests were invited to browse the display and to speak directly with Mr. Haïdara and the representatives from the Ford Foundation.
The presentation coincided with the Ford Foundation's annual review of its project grantees. The Foundation provides continued support to SAVAMA-DCI, a Malian association of private Islamic libraries, "to raise awareness about the poor condition of the manuscripts; restore documents and renovate storage environments; encourage the scholarly exchange necessary to interpret and learn from the manuscripts; and provide sustainable funding for SAVAMA-DCI," according to a Foundation press release.
You can see set of photographs taken at the event, including a selection of the manuscripts on display, on the Goldwater Library's Flickr account.
Ross Day, Museum Librarian, The Robert Goldwater Library; Abdel Kader Haïdara; Erika Hauser, Senior Library Associate, The Robert Goldwater Library