About the Project

The photographs in the audio-video presentation on this site originally began as the project “333 Saints: A Life of Scholarship.”  They are available for exhibition and appropriate licensing.  I also give slideshow presentations on the subject.

In the fall of 2013, I published 333 SAINTS: A Life of Scholarship in Timbuktu / 333 Saints : l’esprit du savoir à Tombouctou in a first edition of 500 books.

Original Project Statement:

The heart of the story “333 Saints: A Life of Scholarship” is about the deep respect and veneration for education, history, and the written word in the scholarly life of Timbuktu, a small, legendary city on the edge of the Sahara Desert in the Republic of Mali.  For centuries the cultural life of the community has revolved around its tradition of Islamic scholarship and the priceless manuscript libraries this scholarly life created; the photographs shows the interpenetration of the sacred and the secular traditions in the life of this city.

The photographs in the project were researched and shot with the financial help of a Fulbright Grant.  Prints from the photographs are in the permanent collections of the Smithsonian Institution Museum of African Art Eliot Elisofon Photo Archives and in the US Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, and the work has been shown in solo and group exhibitions around the world.

The project’s title comes from the 333 official saints in the city’s history, all of whom were scholars either through long study or divine guidance.  In Timbuktu, scholarship was never only an intellectual tradition; it was a way to acquire knowledge, a way of life, and a path to sainthood.  This ancient tradition of learning and the thousands of manuscripts it created have survived into the 21st century; it’s a tradition still essential to the city’s contemporary life, though threatened by military conflict, social change, and modernization.  This threat has only deepened in recent months as Timbuktu was taken over in April, 2012, by militant Islamist rebel groups with al-Qaeda connections.

This is an important project, both for its contribution to documentary photography and for its work transforming cross-cultural perceptions.  My aim is not only to depict the ancient life of scholarship in Timbuktu, but also to present a more nuanced vision of Islam and Africa by focusing on the specific and the local.  The goal is not to force a change or promote an agenda, but rather to open doors of understanding: between generations of Malians, between Africa and the West, between Muslims and non-Muslims.

A nuanced, cross-cultural understanding is essential for effective interpersonal, diplomatic, and economic relations (a need that has become more pressing with the recent turmoil), as well as for understanding our own history and culture.  The deep interconnection between daily life and rituals and religious and intellectual life that still exists in much of the Muslim world seems alien to many Westerners, yet it was an integral part of our past and is not entirely alien to our present.

By showing the tradition of plurality, tolerance, and joy in learning that has characterized Timbuktu’s recent past, I hope to highlight what is in danger of being lost in this city as its citizens have lost their religious and cultural freedom under the rule of rebel groups…indeed what has largely already fled the city with so many of its citizens.

No short-term political, economic, or religious gain justified the destruction of knowledge.  Timbuktu’s scholars have long known this.  In his essay Toward an Intellectual History of West Africa: The Meaning of Timbuktu Souleymane Bachir Diagne writes “The second lesson is another prophetic saying, also quoted by (Ahmad) Baba in Tuhfat al-fudala: ‘The ink of the scholar is more precious than the blood of the martyr.’  Although we live in a time when ignorance speaks in the loud voice of bombs and assassins pretend that they are martyrs, we are reminded by one of the greatest African philosophers of the past that the patience of education has incomparably more value than any other form of combat” (27).

Alexandra Huddleston, Monday, July 9, 2012

Works Cited:

Jeppie, Shamil,  and Souleymane Bachir Diagne eds. The Meanings of Timbuktu.  London:  HSRC Press,  2008.  Print.

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