The Timbuktu Manuscripts unveil history of Africa
from the UNESCO's programme aiming at preservation and dissemination of
valuable archive holdings and library collections worldwide
manuscripts: Africa’s written history unveiled
found at © UNESCO/Alida
A manuscript from Timbuktu (Mali)
Some two hundred thousand ancient manuscripts that were
disintegrating slowly but surely in libraries, cellars and attics in
Timbuktu (Mali), today are systematically inventoried, preserved and
digitized. These priceless treasures, the oldest dating back to the 13th
century, are contributing to the rehabilitation of Africa’s written
The key to a sizeable portion of Sahelian Africa’s
written memory is buried in Timbuktu, city perched on the crest of the
Niger River in Mali. There, in the 15th century, at the height of the gold
and salt trade, merchants and scholars are thick as thieves and the 25,000
African students enrolled at the University of Sankore camp in front of
the ulemas reputed to be exceptionally erudite. In this “city of 333
saints”, the arrival of a number of Arab-Berber intellectuals, fleeing
Muslim Andalusia invaded by Christians, determines, for one, instruction
of the Arabic language and Islamic science. In 1512, Leo Africanus reports
that higher profits can be made there from selling books than from any
other merchandise – proving the value of the written word.
Today some of these manuscript documents have vital political
significance, as for instance the Tarikh el Sudan that traces the
succession of the chiefs of Timbuktu in the 15th century, or the Tarikh el
Fetash, which does the same for medieval
Sudan. The existence of this heritage clearly refutes the stereotype that
characterizes Africa as a continent of exclusively oral tradition.
But do the indigenous populations of Mali know that they
possess, under their feet or in their attics, hundreds of thousands of
vital manuscripts dating from the 13th to the 19th century? Nothing is
less certain. Because of a sanctified notion of African oral tradition, an
absence of translation due to lack of funds (barely 1% of texts are
translated into classical Arabic, French or English) and a certain reserve
about rummaging through the memory of Africa, however honorable,
government authorities are hesitant to exhume what resembles a political
Let us judge for ourselves: treatises on good governance, texts on the
harmful effects of tobacco, pharmacopeial synopses…works on law
(particularly on divorce and the status of divorced women), theology,
grammar and mathematics sit in dusty heaps in private libraries or at the
Ahmed Baba Documentation and Research Centre in Timbuktu. Written
commentaries by the sages of Cordoba, Baghdad or Djenne can still be seen
there. On screen-fronted shelves, legal acts regulating the lives of Jews
and apostate Christians testify to the intense commercial activity of the
era. Parchments concerning selling and freeing slaves, the market prices
of salt, spices, gold and feathers are propped against correspondence
between sovereigns from both sides of the Sahara, illustrated with
illuminations in gold.
All this is frightening. It is intimidating, to the point that even
scientists are troubled by so much available knowledge. George Bohas,
professor of Arabic at the Ecole normale supérieure in Lyon and an
initiator of the Vecmas program (evaluation and critical editing of
sub-Saharan Arabic manuscripts) notes, “We estimate the body of existing
manuscripts at 180,000, of which 25% have been inventoried, less than 10%
catalogued, and 40% are still in wooden or iron containers!” Not
counting all the manuscripts stashed in the homes of families, who don’t
want to give them up, either out of ignorance or for sordid profiteering
An Important African Manuscripts panorama rises to
the surface of history in Timbuktu
pore over these manuscripts that have been successfully saved from insects
and sand dust is a boon for the eyes as well as the spirit. The ensemble,
generally inscribed on paper from the Orient (later from Italy) but also
on sheepskin, bark or the scapula of a camel, is underlined, explained and
annotated in the margin or on the colophon, final page of a book or at the
end of a papyrus scroll where the copyist notes his name and the date he
finished his work. Indirectly, we learn of an earthquake or violent brawl
that perturbed the writing. Thanks to a few isolated modern translators,
an entire African panorama rises again to the surface of history. The
texts are decidedly not homogeneous, for good reason: though the
overwhelming bulk is written in Arabic, copyists expressed themselves
according to their origins – Tamashek, Hausa, Fula, but also Songhai,
Dioula, Soninke or Wolof – using a common calligraphic base inspired
from Maghribi, a cursive Arabic script, the form of which made it possible
to use less paper.
Now, how can we imagine this fabulous historical exploration without the
direct participation of local inhabitants, African scientists and national
governments? This sums up the political challenge attached to the Timbuktu
manuscripts, and beyond them, to the definitive rehabilitation of
Africa’s written history.
By Jean-Michel Djian, French journalist and Associate
Professor, University of Paris 8
More than 15,000 documents have been exhumed and catalogued in Timbuktu
thanks to UNESCO. The project, funded by the government of Luxembourg, has
notably given support to the Ahmed Baba Documentation and Research Centre for
its efforts in restoration, conservation, commercialization and publication of
the contents of the manuscripts.
This project, financed by Luxembourg, aims at ensuring the safeguarding of,
and widely access to, the priceless handwritten cultural heritage both
existing in the public and the private collections in the area of Timbuktu.
These manuscripts constitute for Timbuktu and Mali, a legitimate pride source,
a jealously kept treasure.
The importance of the Arab manuscripts at the
populations of Mali is so real that all written in Arab characters, arrays a
It is undeniable today that this inheritance knows a state of certain
deterioration. In spite of a dry climate playing rather in favour of the paper
preservation, the manuscripts are not safe from any danger.
Much of other harmful factors exist such as biological risks (insects),
chemical (acidity, moisture), natural (heat, fire, water, wind, dust) and
human (handling without care, theft...).
Photographer: Oddbjørn Monsen
100.000 manuscripts on palm leaves need saving
A manuscript on palm leaf
Between 300 and 400 years, that’s the life
expectancy of a palm leaf.
Between 300 and 400 years, that’s the life expectancy of a
Which is why, for two millennia, the kings of Southern India would
periodically give orders to their scribes to recopy manuscripts their
ancestors had written on these prolific but fragile leaves. The rajahs and
temple authorities made sure that the oldest manuscripts were disposed of at
regular intervals according to specific rituals, after they had been
transcribed on fresh palm leaves.
The works included popular literature, technical and scientific manuals,
treatises on traditional Ayurveda, Siddha or Yunani medicine. Today, there are
still tens of thousands of these precious palm leaves in the southern Indian
state of Tamil Nadu alone, with more to be found in Myanmar, Malaysia,
Cambodia, Nepal, India, Sri Lanka, Indonesia and Thailand.
The tradition of scribes having succumbed to the onslaught of the printing
press, a very large number of manuscripts began deteriorating and
disintegrating as of the 19th century. Right now, only a few scholars are
still able to decipher the archaic script on palm leaves. These treasures are
reaching the end of their natural lives. They are attacked by humidity,
fungus, white ants and cockroaches.
In 2003, UNESCO launched a preservation project, giving priority to the
100,000 palm-leaf manuscripts in repositories in southern India. A team of
specialists has already published the first five volumes of a projected
25-volume Descriptive Catalogue of Palm-leaf Manuscripts.
Sana’a manuscripts: uncovering a treasure of words
© Organisation Nationale de l'Archéologie, des Musées et des Manuscrits,
Example of a Sana'a manuscript
found at Courrier
de l'Unesco 2007 - number 5
A journey through time, not places, is what is
traced in these excerpts from the Koran dating back to the first centuries
of the Hijrah (7th and 8th centuries of our era) found by chance in the
Great Mosque of Sana’a (Yemen)
What a surprise for the workers in the Great Mosque of
Sana’a, rebuilding a wall that had collapsed after heavy rains in 1972, to
find thousands of parchments and pieces of paper hidden in the ceiling.
These manuscripts had been slumbering there for centuries. They are
fragments of the Koran written in the oldest Arabic alphabet, and when they
were first found no one could guess their exceptional value.
What was this collection doing inside a wall? Some say the mosque rectors
were in the habit of keeping old and disintegrating Koran manuscripts in
places that were both safe and worthy of the sacred text. The Grand Mosque
in Sana’a, which became from the first century of the Hijrah a place of
learning and dissemination of the Koran, was the designated spot. Other
sources argue that the collections were stored in a safe place to protect
them from looting or destruction if invaders came.
In 1984, the House of Manuscripts (Dar al Makhtutat) was founded close to
the Grand Mosque, as part of a cooperation project between Yemeni and German
authorities. An enormous endeavor was begun to restore the Koranic
fragments. Between 1983 and 1996, approximately 15,000 out of 40,000 pages
were restored, specifically 12,000 fragments on parchment and manuscripts
dating back to the 7th and 8th centuries.
Some fragments were written in Hijazi, the oldest calligraphy of the Koran,
used in texts long before Kufic, which is the writing most often found in
the Koranic manuscripts. Hijazi is a cursive calligraphy, in which accents
and points are not indicated and short vowels inexistent. It is difficult to
read, requiring complete mastery of the language.
Since the launching of the Memory of the World programme, UNESCO has shown
its interest in the Sana’a manuscripts by providing the House of
Manuscripts with conservation materials. In 1995, the Organization also
produced a CD-ROM in Arabic, English and French illustrating the history of
the collection. Given recent advances in computer science, however, the
CD-ROM now needs to be adapted to the latest resources.
read also Histoire du Mali
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