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Timbuktu Manuscripts

The Timbuktu Manuscripts unveil history of Africa

The Timbuktu ManuscriptsManuscript from the UNESCO's programme aiming at preservation and dissemination of valuable archive holdings and library collections worldwide

tombouctou01_250.jpgTimbuktu manuscripts: Africa’s written history unveiled

found at © UNESCO/Alida Boye
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 history.

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.

tombouctou02_250.jpgLong forsaken treasures

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 golden age.

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 reasons.

An Important African Manuscripts panorama rises to the surface of history in Timbuktu

tombouctou03_250.jpgTo 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

Libraries of Timbuktu (click for the Official site)

Photographer: Alida Boye

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 crowned character.

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

breve_feuilles_palmier_250.jpg© UNESCO
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 palm leaf.
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, Yemen
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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