Manuscripts of Timbuktu

It was 2:30 a.m. and pitch black. The shouts from shore to our boat were less distant and increasingly frenzied. A friend and I had arrived at Kabara, the port of legendary Timbuktu. After three days “cruising” on the Niger River, we had reached our destination only 12 hours late.

Timbuktu lies at the point where the Niger pushes deepest into the Sahara desert, a natural meeting point since the 11th century for the salt caravans from the north and gold traders from the south. Its importance as a commercial centre beyond the African continent was confirmed when Timbuktu was included on a map drawn for Charles V of France in 1375 (Hunwick, Islamic Manuscript Heritage 2). Tales of the immense wealth and gold of Timbuktu were told by Muslim travellers, such as Ibn Batuta, who visited the city in 1353 (Gardner 5). Coupled with its near inaccessibility, Timbuktu captured people’s imaginations and has lured travellers to the present. boat to Timbuktu

The prosperity and political stability of Timbuktu produced a social environment that cultivated scholarship. Mansa Musa brought back Muslim scholars from his pilgrimage to Mecca in 1324 and others soon settled in the city (Hunwick, Songhay 31). Teaching was conducted in the Sankore, Jingaray Ber and Sidi Yahya mosques, as well as in the homes of the scholars (Hunwick, Songhay 33). By the 16th century, there was a thriving book trade and copying industry. According to Leo Africanus (b. Muhammad al-Wazzan), there was more profit in the sale of books than any other merchandise (Lydon 52). Private book collections grew; one scholar, Ahmad Baba, claimed that his 1,600 volumes was one of the smaller collections (Hunwick, Songhay 35). There are indications that one ruler, Askiya Dawud, set up public libraries but no physical evidence has ever been found (Hunwick, Islamic Manuscript Heritage 6).

manuscripts of TimbuktuHaving been passed down from generation to generation, plenty of evidence of private collections survives. The private collections passed from one generation to another and are very much in evidence. Since 1970, some 20,000 manuscripts have been purchased or donated to the Institute des Hautes Etudes et de Recherches Islamiques - Ahmed Baba (IHERI-AB, initially CEDRAB): thousands more remain in the possession of the scholars’ descendents, many of whom have opened private libraries (Hofheinz 159-160).

Rising early to avoid the intense Saharan sun, my friend and I made our way through the sandy streets to IHERI-AB. We were welcomed into a room housing the manuscripts. The majority were stored one on top of the other in cabinets, but a selection was on display under glass. Through illustrations in the manuscripts and interpretive cards we ascertained that the contents of the manuscripts ranged from religion to explanations of Islamic law, astronomy, medicine, history, geography and Arabic grammar.

We were particularly fascinated with a small folio recording trade in the local market, and another with scribbled notes in the margin. Events of local interest, such as weddings and a meteor shower, were recently identified in Mahmud Kati’s manuscript notes (Hofheinz 170). These details are often left unrecorded in favour of more significant events and lives of rulers, but a look into the daily reality of ordinary persons reveals the texture of history.

IHERI AB Conservation RoomWe also visited the conservation lab where local technicians, trained in South Africa, were at work. According to IHERI-AB’s website, 750 single folio and 250 multi folio manuscripts in the collection and their bindings have already been restored. I was told that while the dry climate is generally advantageous to preservation, it makes the pages brittle; other challenges IHERI-AB faces are damage done by termites, fire and improper storage practices.

A second component of IHERI-AB’s work is digitization. Technicians scan selected manuscripts page-by-page to generate digital images. The objective is not only to preserve the manuscripts, but also to improve accessibility for researchers worldwide. IHERI-AB is compiling a searchable database that identifies up to 33 features of each text, so far 1,000 of the institute's 20,000 manuscripts have been catalogued (Reardon n. pag.). Apart from the obvious copyright issues of generating digital images, logistical challenges abound: ubiquitous sand from the Sahara and power outages wreak havoc on electronic equipment, and exposure to the bright lights of scanners may deteriorate the manuscripts further.

To those who make rare books and cataloguing their life’s work, the significance of the Timbuktu manuscripts is obvious. They have an impact in other areas as well, for example, the Institute for the Study of Islamic Thought in Africa (ISITA) uses the manuscripts to dispel the common perception that the peoples of Africa were illiterate until the European missionaries’ and colonists’ arrival to the continent. Based on manuscript content, ISITA also challenges the presumption that Africans did not contribute original ideas to Islamic religion and teachings. The Special Conflict Resolution Group in Mali has found numerous examples in the ancient peacekeeper manuscripts of imams, judges and scholars who mediated between warring regional factions; these ancient peacekeepers have much to offer contemporary war-torn Africa.

Leaving TimbuktuTheir greatest impact might be on young Malians who live in a country that the United Nations Development Programme ranked the fourth least developed in its human development index report (235). Reintroducing the history contained in the ancient manuscripts to students can, in the words of an advisor to the Ministry of Education, “instill dignity and purpose …[and is] … a powerful tool for development” (Reardon n. pag.).

It appears that the true wealth of Timbuktu lies not in its legendary gold, but amongst the piles of dusty and brittle manuscripts. Those who are interested need not go to Timbuktu to see such manuscripts, although I would highly recommend a visit. A private library in Timbuktu, Kati Family Library, is planning “virtual visits” via the Internet (Hofheinz 168). Pending this, there is the exhibition of rare Islamic manuscripts in the McLennan Library Lobby until November 30th, although only one piece is from sub-Saharan Africa (a wooden Qur’anic tablet). For those who can read Arabic, the Islamic Studies Library at McGill has a handlist of manuscripts at IHERI-AB, prepared in a five-volume set by the Al-Furqan Islamic Heritage Foundation, and in the Rare Books department there is a 1932 printing of a well-known 16th century work by Ahmad Baba of Timbuktu (a supplement to an earlier biographical dictionary of Islamic scholars).

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~Brenda Platt is an MLIS I.