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Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Coming to Terms

Tears of the Faithful

    I don’t mind revealing that when I heard the news of the burning of the Ahmed Baba Institute in Timbuktu, that I cried – I cried tears of human frustration and spiritual pain.  For context, consider if the Louvre, British National Museum, the Vatican Library and Archives or the Smithsonian had been bombed and destroyed by terrorists – that is the level of cultural crimes against humanity that we are potentially witnessing.
    How can religious persons justify the taking of a life in the name of their religion?  Worse, how can they seek to destroy the very essence of humanity, of life and of shared culture by sacking mosques, churches and museums or burning lecture halls and libraries?  All I can note is that if they are seeking to demonstrate their spiritual distance from the rest of humanity, they have in fact succeeded – for in no way might such persons honestly qualify themselves as human – their error lies in the fact that these are not the acts of saints or angels, but rather the very essence of evil in allegiance with the fallen ones who desire to destroy the testimony and record of God.
    And no, I am not the only person to weep over such things.  People all over the world were horrified as the Arno threatened Florence.  In 410 CE, Jerome wept when he received the news that Rome had fallen.  Jesus wept over the lack of insight and understanding amongst his followers.  American soldiers risked their lives protecting the treasures and records of the Iraqi National Museum during the US-led occupation.
    A disaster-genre movie, The Day After Tomorrow, contains a dialogue between a young student and an atheist intellectual who is carefully guarding New York Library’s Gutenberg Bible:

[The refugees at the New York Public Library are burning books to stay warm, but Elsa notices Jeremy holding something]
Elsa: What have you got there?
Jeremy: A Gutenberg Bible. It was in the rare books room.
Elsa: You think God's gonna save you?
Jeremy: No, I don't believe in God.
Elsa: You're holding onto that Bible pretty tight.
Jeremy: I'm protecting it. [glares at Sam] This Bible is the first book ever printed. It represents the dawn of the Age of Reason. As far as I'm concerned, the written word is mankind's greatest achievement. You can laugh. But if Western civilization is finished, I'm gonna save at least one little piece of it. (courtesy

    I remember weeping over such things the first time as the destruction of the Buddhas of Bamiyan was relayed at night by BBC broadcasting.  Only then was I confronted by the knowledge that religious persons could be completely soul-less and that religion often had little to do with spirituality.
    On Monday, the news that the French and African forces had liberated Timbuktu in Mali was relayed to great relief and joy around the world.  Just months ago, we listened in as religious Fundamentalists ransacked and destroyed a city of ancient beauty, quiet monuments and historic learning.  Yet, there was hope that they were merely defacing monuments that could be replaced.  On Monday, we learned that the same Fundamentalists had set fire to Ahmed Baba Institute – a UNESCO-sponsored library in a registered UNESCO historic site – a library containing some 30,000 original, historic manuscripts dating back to the 13th Century – to the flowering and glory of Occidental Islam, said to rival the libraries and universities of Alexandria and Cairo.
    This morning, we do not yet know the extent of the damage – whether the underground vaults remain intact or were compromised by vandalism or the fire.  How much of Islamic history was destroyed by a cynical, careless, hate crime?  How much of Africa’s history has been destroyed?  How much of humanity has been lost?  Just a few weeks ago, a prominent American committed suicide to protest the lack of access to such library collections by the general public.  Now, religious zealots had actually destroyed the library so that no one will ever have access to the materials lost at any price.
    Am I wrong?  Am I, as certain Christian fundamentalist relatives claimed, being overly materialistic?  I think not.  Jeremiah wept over the fall of Jerusalem and generations of Hebrews were shell shocked by the sacking and burning of the Temple Mount and its records.  These are not light moments of material preoccupation, they are the essence of, our record of, our experience of all that makes us human, all that connects us to our gods, that very reflection of the image of Creator God innate within us.  We are creators and that creative narrative is to be honored, remembered and spared (John 1).
    In fact, if one recalls one’s Old Testament, God constantly commanded that alters and monuments be constructed and maintained.  According to Mennonite tradition, the Ark of Covenant was in actuality a spiritual archive containing both the Spiritual essence of God and the material reminders or proofs of the narrative Israelite history and covenant with that God. 
    Ahmed Baba was built on hope, on the intellect and on respect.  Ahmed Baba is not not just a library – it is in many ways an extension of and successor to the ancient Library of Alexandria as the new universal library of Africa.  Alexandria was burnt first by war in 48 BC, a task later completed by Muslim armies under Amr ibn al 'Aas in 642 AD.  Ahmed Baba was burnt in 2013.
    Architectural Record’s description of the building reads as a long lost European epic saga: 
    Because the archive and conservation lab required more protection, the architect specified standard concrete-block cavity walls for this portion of the building. By placing the conservation lab so it faces a hallway, he let visitors watch technicians at work. And by bringing visitors down a long ramp to the subterranean archive and a small exhibition space, he created a sense of procession. An air-conditioned, 300-seat auditorium and an outdoor amphitheater can accommodate symposia and lectures. To connect the various programmatic elements, Spies [a South African architect] designed expansive outdoor hallways that converge at
a courtyard.
    Head librarian Baba Tandina says he enjoys watching schoolchildren fill the library, which is particularly cheerful in the late afternoon when light filters through ornate, carved screens. The screen configurations — radiating diagonals, zigzags, and pyramids — derive from manuscript graphics and West African textile patterns. The airy double-height main gathering space hosts rows of desks and shelves of books, while the upstairs provides space for private study. To reduce the amount of sand blowing into the library, the architect placed entry doors off the courtyard (rather than the street) and designed the courtyard so scholars could congregate there and enjoy air cooled by a fountain. (Caroline James, Architectural Record, 2011).

    It is not the buildings over which we worry and mourn, however, but over the manuscripts, carefully preserved for centuries, often within the same families.  Under enlightened leadership, these manuscripts were collected and stored in a single place to be studied and to enlighten Mali, Islam and humanity.  Only under such naïve conditions could such potential destruction occur.
    The general consensus has seemingly been the West must encourage and hope for a Renaissance in Islamic thought and practice, away from destructive Fundamentalism and towards more openness to the world, to cooperation and tolerance of those from other faiths and greater freedom and self-realization for intellectuals, artists, women, children and homosexuals.  After the destruction of Bayarim, a few Cassandras worried about Islam’s custodianship of mankind’s artistic and cultural heritage.  While Turkey was demanding the return of archaeological treasures, nationalists were pondering whether or not the Louvre could someday be closed and dispersed under an increasing Islamic political presence in France.  The burning of Ahmed Baba makes it more difficult for us to convincingly say “No.”
    Not that this is an Islamic problem.  In fact, Protestant Christian armies, politicians and fanatics have possibly destroyed more churches, libraries, works of art and archives than any other historical cultural force.  Hindu extremists have bombed mosques and monuments.  Ayutthaya was destroyed in 1767.  Germans burnt Louvain in 1914.  Israeli Fundamentalists coyly discussed the destruction of Jerusalem’s historic Dome of the Rock mosque in 2013.   

Some cultural depositories mentioned in the Bible:

a.      Testimony to Treaty at Beersheba between Abraham and Abimelech and Phicol (Gen 21:22-34)
b.      The Cave of Machpelah (Gen 23) – burial place or repository of the Patriarchs
c.      Bethel, Jacob’s Monument (Gen 28:18-22)
d.      Exodus 25:10-22:  The Ark and Tabernacle – repository for the Testimony, the Law
e.      Numbers 17:1-13:  Aaron’s staff placed before the “Testimony”
f.       Deuteronomy 10:1-5 – Moses creates the tablets and an ark repository
g.      Deuteronomy 12: 11-14:  God decrees a place of depository and sacrifice
h.      Deuteronomy 27:1-8  The Repository of the Law on Mount Ebal
i.       Joshua 22:24-28 – Altars commemorating the boundaries and ties of the tribes of Israel
j.       Joshua 24:25-27 – Covenant of Shecham
k.      2 Kings 22 – the Temple Library rediscovered in the reign of Josiah
l.       Ezra 5 – correspondence in the Archives of Jerusalem and Babylon
m.    Esther 6:  King consults the archives regarding Mordecai
n.      Jeremiah 32:13:  Jeremiah archives his deed to the land
o.      Jeremiah 36:20:  The secretary’s room (Elishama)

    This is not to mention the libraries and academies of Babylon or that of Alexandria Egypt wherein the holy books of Judaism and later Christianity were translated, preserved and taught.  Unwittingly, in 391 CE, Theodosius had the library wherein the Holy Bible was codified and translated destroyed.

    Clearly, God has not only commanded the preservation and honoring of His narrative, but He has both referenced and utilized archives, libraries and memorials throughout His-tory to reinforce and reveal His will.  The sanctity, utility and mandate of these resources seems to be quite clear and not at all grey.  One cannot call oneself a child of God, Allah or Ywh and fail to respect the sanctity of such spaces or their contents – regardless of the example of those who have failed in this regard in the past, the religion of the place or the mad aspirations of the destroyers.
    If we are unable to respect our fellow humanity, then let us agree to respect the innate Image of God/Allah/Ywh within each of us and the material reflections of this creative, rational, historic Image and the repositories that protect it.

Alpert, Emily, "Timbuktu: Experts fear for ancient papers in historic city," LA Times, 28 Jan, 2013. 

   31 Jan, 2013, Alpert, writing for the LA Times, has indicated that while destruction and fires did occur at the library, that damage to the historical collections was perceived at present to be minimal based on two issues -- first, that the building housing the actual manuscripts had not been part of the fire and second, that many of the manuscripts had been removed for hiding -- which has been a part of Timbuktu's historical survival throughout these centuries and accounts for the actual survival of many of the manuscripts.
    On the other hand, the survival of the manuscripts would in no way lesson the seriousness of the destruction with in the city or of the fire in the main library building itself.  If we are ever to learn to live together as a common humanity, we have to learn to be able to disagree and to respect those with whom we disagree -- especially when it comes to killing and to destroying cultural archives, institutions and artifacts.  
    I do not have any answers or suggestions, only note how difficult it is to preserve history, artifact and knowledge under the best of conditions, and I know how much has been lost to the Mennonites, for instance, under relatively peaceful and accepting circumstances.  
     If the library's collection have been spared, we offer up a prayer of thanksgiving while noting that much work need to be done to prevent such worries in the future.


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