Islamists Destroy Manuscripts of Timbuktu UPDATED

Islamist militants fleeing from Timbuktu in the war-torn nation of Mali have destroyed a vast cache of documents dating back to the 12th century. The documents were torched by extremists along with a mosque, the Ahmed Baba Institute, and other Muslim structures. (Islam in Mali is moderate, and mostly Sunni or Sufi. The country is 90% Muslim, 5% Christian, and 5% animist.)

Although the precious manuscripts were in the process of being digitized, thousands are now lost forever.

Voice of America is covering the story:

“They destroyed everything, they destroyed the mosque, they destroyed the things is more than 300, 400 years old,’ they said, because their religion doesn’t accept that. For me, it doesn’t make any sense. And we tried to fight. Who to fight? We are on our own. We don’t have guns to fight them, we don’t have nothing,” a librarian said.

The Malian Manuscript Foundation, a group that digitizes Malian manuscripts, says 3,000 documents, “Potentially, the wisdom of the ages”, may have been lost in the torching of the Ahmed Baba Institute.

Others are calling the destruction unprecedented.

“These manuscripts were just starting to be studied. Not all of them have been catalogued. Hardly any have been read. It represents a set of knowledge that is now just never going to be known,” said Douglas Post Park, the co-director of the Saharan Archaeological Research Association.

The texts of Timbuktu date as far back as the 12th century, when gold and other goods flowed through the city, allowing it to become a center of learning that some compare to the ancient library of Alexandria, Egypt.

Read more. VOA has a second story as well. Not all the facts line up between the two stories, but that’s to be expected given the situation.

Along with the terrible human toll taken by the war, the cultural cost is going to be great given the historical significance of the region.

UPDATE 1/30/13: This story continues to develop, and I may have one answer to the discrepancy I’ve seen among the various number of documents lost or destroyed. It now appears that some manuscripts were indeed burned (perhaps that’s where the “3000” number comes in?), but some were moved before the fall of the city to the militants, and some were carried away by the militants themselves. There appears to be no doubt that many documents were destroyed, but there’s a possibility that some may be recovered. The New Yorker and The Globe and Mail each have more.


Conviction Upheld in Dead Sea Scrolls Identity Theft

In yesterday’s news about the final stop for the Dead Sea Scrolls exhibit, I mentioned some of the controversy surrounding scroll scholarship. One of the more bizarre sideshows in the world of the DSS is The Sorry Saga of the Golbs.

Raphael Golb is the son of scroll scholar Norman Golb, a man who has managed to master a great deal of knowledge about the DSS, and then come to all the wrong conclusions.  In an effort to discredit his father’s critics, Golb fils impersonated several academics, sending out emails in order to damage their reputations.

This morning, courtesy of Robert Cargill’s XKV8R  blog, I see that 29 of Raphael Golb’s 30 convictions have been upheld. Here’s the court’s summary:

Defendant is the son of an expert on the Dead Sea Scrolls. Defendant set up email accounts in which he pretended to be other scholars who disagreed with defendant’s father’s opinion on the origin of the Scrolls. Among other things, defendant sent emails in which one of his father’s rivals purportedly admitted to acts of plagiarism.

Defendant’s principal defense was that these emails were only intended to be satiric hoaxes or pranks. However, as it has been observed in the context of trademark law, “[a] parody must convey two simultaneous – and contradictory – messages: that it is the original, but also that it is not the original and is instead a parody” (Cliffs Notes, Inc. v Bantam Doubleday Dell Pub. Group, Inc., 886 F2d 490, 494 [2d Cir 1989]). Here, the evidence clearly established that defendant never intended any kind of parody. Instead, he only intended to convey the first message to the readers of the emails, that is, that the purported authors were the actual authors. It was equally clear that defendant intended that the recipients’ reliance on this deception would cause harm to the purported authors and benefits to defendant or his father.

Dr. Cargill has done the digging, so I’ll let him fill in the details, but you really should go to his site if only to gaze at the impressive table of crimes committed by a man trying to destroy respected scholars like Lawrence Schiffman. Even the revered Frank Moore Cross got dragged into this mess.

The theory of Golb pere–that Qumran was a fort without connection to the scroll caves, and that the caves were a repository for scrolls of many sects out of Jerusalem–is an interesting but long-discredited footnote in the story of Qumran and the scrolls. The unpleasant part is the vehemence with which both Golbs have attempted to advance that theory.

One of their boosters (and I’m not completely sure it wasn’t one of Raphael Golb’s sock puppets) has haunted my comboxes and posted criticism of some of my writing on a HuffPo community blog. I’ve only ever written about the scrolls here or in the National Catholic Register, which means I’m a complete nobody in the world of Dead Sea Scrolls scholarship and opinion. Anyone taking efforts to swat me down is more than a little obsessed.

In any case, Golb will appeal, and his case will continue to wind its way through the legal system before his convictions are finally upheld. I wish I could say I feel sorry for either father or son, but they’ve been a uniquely nasty pair in their attempts to discredit anyone who disagrees with them.

Weird Medieval Marginalia

I guess it’s nice when the internet discovers the much-better-than-the Renaissance-or-Enlightenment awesomeness of the Middle Ages, but like schoolboys searching for the dirty words in the dictionary, they often only seems to find the bizarre or outrageously sexual stuff. Case in point: Buzzfeed’s 20 Bizarre Examples of Medieval Marginalia. Please, please, PLEASE do not click that link if you are easily offended. You have been warned, so I don’t want to hear about, okay?

Here is the least offensive thing I could use:

Honestly, though, for those not familiar with weirdness in Medieval illustration, it’s a decent primer of just how weird some can get, and proof that all those celibates hunched over candles illustrating religious texts got seriously punchy now and then.

If you want a large collection of medieval manuscript art, I recommend Masterpieces of Illumination. It doesn’t have as many sodomite monkeys or butt-trumpets as Buzzfeed, but it is a good selection of fascinating art at a reasonable price.