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  • Alex Colville

Focusing on Djenné's Heritage

Updated: Sep 10, 2020

A large proportion of Djenné’s manuscripts have now been digitally scanned, ready to be stored at the Archives Nationales in Bamako, and released online by the British Library.

As part of the ceremony handing over the digital files in Bamako on the 7th December, 4D Heritage's exhibit will showcase the heritage of the past with the tools of the future. Importantly, it shall be placed in the hands of individuals at a local level, giving them the knowledge and tools needed to aid understanding of cultural heritage. The community-based approach to the mapping, modelling and monitoring of endangered heritage sites needs to be grounded in the real issues faced by remote or isolated communities, if they wish to preserve their history, culture and local skills.

The Humanitarian Innovation Fund supported this for project because it highlights the challenge of heritage stewardship in a country facing insecurity and chronic poverty. Mali has a particularly rich cultural heritage, home to four World Heritage Sites: the Old Towns of Djenné, the Tomb of Askia, Timbuktu and the Cliff of Bandiagara (Land of the Dogons).

Testing the ideas with the local community of Djenné helps to prioritise what is important about the 4DHeritage approach and develop a practical solution that can be refined over time.

Mali was in the spotlight recently for the establishment of an important precedent regarding heritage. In the first case of its kind, Ahmad al-Faqi al-Mahdi was tried at the International Criminal Court in August 2016 for war crimes against a World Heritage site during the time that he headed the ‘moral police’ of the jihadist rebel group Ansar Dine.

Mali, along with Syria, was recently chosen by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences as a case study to look at how the international community could create a protocol invoking a responsibility to protect endangered cultural heritage. Mali’s Ministère de la Culture has taken the initiative of creating, with UNESCO, a ‘Passeport pour le Patrimonie biens culturels à préserver’ to raise awareness of the laws and monuments, so that ‘everyone can “live with their heritage”’.

Heritage protection in Mali is acutely needed and represents both a national and international priority. We chose to work with the community of Djenné for the first stage of this initiative.


Djenné sits roughly half way between the capital, Bamako, and Timbuktu, but has become isolated as insecurity has spread in the north of the country. As a result, the tourists, architects, and donors, who used to ensure support for heritage conservation in Djenné has shrunk. Without the engagement of the local community, the traditional architecture may suffer from decay and encroachment; and the deterioration seen in recent years will not be repaired.


In Djenné, the use of digital technology has been pioneered in the digitisation projects sponsored since 2009 by the Endangered Archives Programme, in close collaboration with the British Library and Arcadia at the Djenné Manuscript Library. The EAP has financed four consecutive projects which have been carried out by locally trained staff as they have digitised these endangered Arabic manuscripts.

There are thought to be at least 10,000 ancient manuscripts in private hands in Djenné and neighbouring villages. Now that the current fourth project is drawing to a close the library has digitised close to half a million pages. This involves weekly visits by archivists to the out-lying villages, accompanied by a person known in the particular village and under the auspices of the village chiefs.

Documents being scanned as part of the endangered archives programme.

The oldest holding in the Djenné Manuscript Library dates from 1394. The digitised images are stored on hard drives and an access copy is available for researchers.

The threat to the Djenné manuscripts was highlighted by the destruction of manuscripts in Timbuktu by the Jihadist occupiers.

The ceremony on the 7th December 2018 at the National Archives to mark this milestone in the digital heritage stewardship is testament to how significant this project is in demonstrating what can be done to document, safeguard and share heritage...on the frontline.

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