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Timbuktu Manuscripts

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Manuscript pages from Timbuktu
Manuscript of Nasir al-Din Abu al-Abbas Ahmad ibn al-Hajj al-Amin al-Tawathi al-Ghalawi's Kashf al-Ghummah fi Nafa al-Ummah. From the Mamma Haidara Commemorative Library, Timbuktu.
A manuscript page from Timbuktu showing a table of astronomical information

Timbuktu Manuscripts, or Tombouctou Manuscripts, is a blanket term for the large number of historically significant manuscripts that have been preserved for centuries in private households in Timbuktu, a city in northern Mali. The collections include manuscripts about art, medicine, philosophy, and science, as well as copies of the Quran.[1] Timbuktu manuscripts are the most well known set of West African manuscripts.[2]

The manuscripts are written in Arabic and several African languages, in the Ajami script; this includes, but is not limited to, Fula, Songhay, Tamasheq, Bambara, and Soninke.[3] The dates of the manuscripts range between the late 13th and the early 20th centuries (i.e., from the Islamisation of the Mali Empire until the decline of traditional education in French Sudan).[4] Their subject matter ranges from scholarly works to short letters.

After the decline of the Mali Empire, the manuscripts were kept in the homes of Timbuktu locals, before research and digitisation efforts began in the 20th and 21st century.

The manuscripts, and other cultural heritage in Mali, were imperilled during the Mali War. 4,203 of Timbuktu's manuscripts were burned or stolen following between 2012 and 2013. Some 350,000 manuscripts were transported to safety, and 300,000 of them were still in Bamako in 2022.[5][6][7]


Early scribes translated works of numerous well-known individuals (such as Plato, Hippocrates, and Avicenna) as well as reproduced a "twenty-eight volume Arabic language dictionary called The Mukham, written by an Andalusian scholar in the mid-eleventh century."[8]: 25  Original books from Timbuktu have been written by local scientists, historians, philosophers, and versemakers. Legal experts in the city gathered scholarship about Islamic jurisprudence, or fikh, as well as obligatory alms, or zakat.[8]: 25–26  Astronomers studied the movement of stars and relation to seasons, crafting charts of the heavens and precise diagrams of orbits of the other planets based on complex mathematical calculations; they even documented a meteor shower in 1593—"“In the year 991 in God’s month of Rajab the Godly, after half the night had passed stars flew around as if fire had been kindled in the whole sky—east, west, north and south...It became a nightly flame lighting up the earth, and people were extremely disturbed. It continued until after dawn.”[8]: 26–27  Physicians documented instructions on nutrition and therapeutic properties of desert plants, and ethicists debated matters such as "polygamy, moneylending, and slavery."[8]: 27  "There were catalogues of spells and incantations; astrology; fortune-telling; black magic; necromancy, or communication with the dead by summoning their spirits to discover hidden knowledge; geomancy, or divining markings on the ground made from tossed rocks, dirt, or sand; hydromancy, reading the future from the ripples made from a stone cast into a pool of water; and other occult subjects..."[8]: 27  A volume titled Advising Men on Sexual Engagement with Their Women acted as a guide on aphrodasiacs and infertility remedies, as well as offering advice on "winning back" their wives. "At a time when women’s sexuality was barely acknowledged in the West, the manuscript, a kind of Baedeker to orgasm, offered tips for maximizing sexual pleasure on both sides."[8]: 27 

The manuscripts were passed down in Timbuktu families and were mostly in poor condition.[9] Most of the manuscripts remain unstudied and uncatalogued, and their total number is unknown, affording only rough estimates. A selection of about 160 manuscripts from the Mamma Haidara Commemorative Library in Timbuktu and the Ahmed Baba collection were digitized by the Tombouctou Manuscripts Project in the 2000s.[8] Beginning in 2013, the Hill Museum & Manuscript Library (HMML) at Saint John's University in Collegeville, Minnesota, partnered with SAVAMA-DCI for a large-scale digitization effort that has photographed more than 150,000 manuscripts. This effort has been supported by the Arcadia Fund. These are being made available through HMML's online Reading Room. In 2017, HMML and the British Library's Endangered Archives Programme launched the Endangered Libraries in Timbuktu (ELIT) project to digitize manuscripts that remained in Timbuktu with the three principal mosques.[10]

With the demise of Arabic education in Mali under French colonial rule, appreciation for the medieval manuscripts declined in Timbuktu, and many were being sold off.[11] Time magazine related the account of an imam who picked up four of them for $50 each. In October 2008 one of the households was flooded, destroying 700 manuscripts.[12]


Digitizing ancient documents at the Ahmed Baba Institute of Higher Learning and Islamic Research, 2007

In 1970, UNESCO founded an organization which included among its tasks preservation of the manuscripts, but it went unfunded until 1977.[13] In 1998, Harvard University professor Henry Louis Gates visited Timbuktu for his PBS series Wonders of the African World. The series raised public and academic awareness of the manuscripts, which led to a pool of funding opening up.[14]

The Timbuktu Manuscripts Project was a project of the University of Oslo running from 1999 - 2007, the goal of which was to assist in physically preserving the manuscripts, digitize them and building an electronic catalogue, and making them accessible for research.[15] It was funded by the government of Luxembourg[16] along with the Norwegian Agency for Development Cooperation (NORAD), the Ford Foundation, the Norwegian Council for Higher Education's Programme for Development Research and Education (NUFU), and the United States' Ambassadors Fund for Cultural Preservation. Among the results of the project are: reviving the ancient art of bookbinding and training a solid number of local specialists; devising and setting up an electronic database to catalogue the manuscripts held at the Institut des Hautes Études et de Recherche Islamique – Ahmad Baba (IHERI-AB); digitizing a large number of manuscripts held at the IHERIAB; facilitating scholarly and technical exchange with manuscript experts in Morocco and other countries;[17] reviving IHERI-AB's journal Sankoré; and publishing the illustrated book, The Hidden Treasures of Timbuktu: Rediscovering Africa's Literary Culture.[18]

Since the end of this project, the cooperation of Grand-Duché de Luxembourg has funded a new project called Timbuktu Manuscripts. This project aims at protecting and promoting Timbuktu Manuscripts, for economic, social and cultural development of the area. It is implemented by the Lux-Development agency and the goals are:

  1. a better conservation of the manuscripts (100 listed manuscripts, 10 described manuscripts, 2 digitalized manuscripts, 10 restored and protected manuscripts)
  2. a better scientific utilisation of the manuscripts
  3. use of manuscripts to promote economic, social and cultural development of the area

Since the events in the North of Mali in 2012, the project MLI/015 works with its main partners in Bamako on result 1. These key partners are the IHERI-AB (Institut des Hautes Etudes et de Recherche Islamique Ahmed Baba) and the SAVAMA DCI (Association de Sauvegarde et de Mise en Valeur des Manuscrits et de Défense de la Culture Islamique). Beginning of 2013, they had completed an important work of describing 10,000 manuscripts through standardized registration forms.[citation needed]

The Timbuktu Manuscripts Project is a separate project run by the University of Cape Town. In a partnership with the government of South Africa, which contributed to the Timbuktu trust fund, this project is the first official cultural project of the New Partnership for Africa's Development. It was founded in 2003 and is ongoing. They released a report on the project in 2008.[19] As well as preserving the manuscripts, the Cape Town project also aims to make access to public and private libraries around Timbuktu more widely available. The project's online database is accessible to researchers only. In 2015, it was announced that the Timbuktu trust fund would close after receiving no more funds from the South African government.[20]

Another project was seeded in 2005, when Aluka[21] (which later integrated with JSTOR) began a dialogue with members of library and scholarly communities, expressing its interest in helping to solve some of the challenges faced by libraries in Timbuktu. In January 2007, after a series of meetings and discussions in Cape Town, New York, and Timbuktu, Aluka entered into a formal partnership with SAVAMA-DCI (L’organisation Non Gouvernmentale pour la Sauvegarde et la Valorisation des Manuscrits pour la Defense de la Culture Islamique), a Timbuktu-based NGO whose mission is to help private manuscript libraries in Mali safeguard, preserve, and understand their intellectual treasures. As part of this project, Aluka also partnered with two academic groups, Northwestern University’s Advanced Media Production Studio (NUAMPS), led by Mr. Harlan Wallach, and the Tombouctou Mss Project at the University of Cape Town’s Department of Historical Studies. Some of the images are published in a project report from Aluka.[22] Over 300 digitized manuscripts are available to researchers and were featured in Aluka’s online archive as part of its African Cultural Heritage Sites and Landscapes digital library, which was later integrated with JSTOR.[23][24]

A book about Timbuktu, published in 2008, contains a chapter with some discussions of a few of the texts[clarification needed].[25]

Digital images of thirty-two manuscripts from the private Mamma Haïdara Library are available from the United States Library of Congress;[26] a subset of these are also accessible from the United Nations' World Digital Library website.[27]

The Centre for the Study of Manuscript Cultures (CSMC) at the University of Hamburg has supported conservation and inventorying efforts at SAVAMA-DCI since 2013, coordinated with HMML's digitization efforts.[28] HMML is now leading a major cataloguing project based on the CSMC's initial metadata, supported by the National Endowment for the Humanities.[29]

Destruction and evacuation[edit]

Empty manuscript boxes at IHERI-AB, Timbuktu

4,203 of Timbuktu's manuscripts were burned or stolen following the fall of Timbuktu in the Northern Mali conflict between 2012 and 2013 by the Islamist rebels of Ansar Dine. The Ahmed Baba Institute and a library, both containing thousands of manuscripts, were said to have been burnt as the Islamists retreated from Timbuktu. 90% of these manuscripts were saved by the population organized around the NGO "Sauvegarde et valorisation des manuscrits pour la défense de la culture islamique" (SAVAMA-DCI).[30][7] Some 350,000 manuscripts were transported to safety, and 300,000 of them were still in Bamako in 2022.[5][6]

History of the evacuation[edit]

U.S.-based book preservation expert Stephanie Diakité and Dr. Abdel Kader Haidara,[31] curator of one of the most important libraries of Timbuktu, a position handed down in his family for generations, organized the evacuation of the manuscripts to Bamako in the south of Mali.[32] Timbuktu has a long tradition of celebrating and honoring family manuscript collections. It is traditional for a family member to “swear publicly that he will protect the library for as long as he lives.” [33] During the evacuation process, Haidara relied on local families to hide the Ahmed Baba Institute's manuscript collection in their homes before the texts were ultimately transported to Bamako.[33] The evacuation was supported by international organizations, such as the Prince Claus Fund for Culture and Development, whose initial commitment was followed by financial support from other organisations such as the Doen Foundation and Ford Foundation.[34] Abdel Kader thanked SAVAMA-DCI and their partners in a letter for enabling the evacuation of the manuscripts to the cities in the south of the country and supporting their storage.[35]

Aboubacry Moussa Lam was a signatory to an appeal to preserve the Timbuktu Manuscripts.[36]

Post evacuation[edit]

Manuscripts of the Ahmed Baba Centre

Once in the south, the manuscripts faced new dangers: mold and humidity. Stephanie Diakité and Dr. Abdel Kader Haidara began a campaign to raise money for the preservation of the books including a crowd-funding campaign called "Timbuktu Libraries in Exile".[37] Whereas many institutions have provided funding, equipment and/or training, the leading role in all the proceedings is played by the local people.[38]

An international consultation on the safeguarding, accessibility and promotion of ancient manuscripts in the Sahel was held at the UNESCO office in Bamako in 2020.[7][5]

Media coverage[edit]

A movie about the Timbuktu Manuscript Project, The Ancient Astronomers of Timbuktu, was released in 2009 with funding from the Ford Foundation and Oppenheimer Memorial Trust.[39]

The French/German cultural TV channel ARTE produced a feature-length film about Timbuktu's manuscript heritage in 2009 entitled "Tombouctou: les manuscrits sauvés des sables" or "Timbuktus verschollenes Erbe: vom Sande verweht".[40][41] Another film on the subject entitled "Manuscripts of Timbuktu" was also released in 2009. The film was made by South African director Zola Maseko, executive produced by the South African Broadcasting Corporation and distributed by California Newsreel.[42]

In 2013, BBC Four produced a documentary called "The Lost Libraries of Timbuktu."[43]

In 2016, a book about the manuscripts and the efforts to save them in the midst of the assault and occupation of northern Mali by Islamist jihadis was published. The book, The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu by Joshua Hammer,[8] provides vivid details about the collection of the manuscripts into libraries and subsequent efforts to remove them to safety during the dangerous conflict, in which the Islamist jihadis threatened to destroy them.

In 2017, journalist Charlie English published The Book Smugglers of Timbuktu (also published as The Storied City: The Quest for Timbuktu and the Fantastic Mission to Save Its Past) which tells in alternating chapters the history of European expeditions to Timbuktu (1795 – 1860) and the rescue efforts undertaken by Haidara and others to save the manuscripts from destruction by jihadists in 2012.[44][45]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Rainier, Chris (May 27, 2003). "Reclaiming the Ancient Manuscripts of Timbuktu". National Geographic News. Archived from the original on 2012-07-14.
  2. ^ Ngom, Fallou (Jun 2017). "West African Manuscripts in Arabic and African Languages and Digital Preservation" (PDF). Oxford Research Encyclopedia of African History. Oxford University Press. p. 3. doi:10.1093/ACREFORE/9780190277734.013.123. ISBN 9780190277734. OCLC 1013546425. S2CID 193793541.
  3. ^ Polgreen, Lydia (Aug 7, 2007). "Timbuktu Hopes Ancient Texts Spark a Revival". Archived from the original on Jan 29, 2013. Retrieved Aug 18, 2020 – via NYTimes.com.
  4. ^ "Project – Tombouctou Manuscripts Project". Tombouctoumanuscripts.org. Archived from the original on March 11, 2011. Retrieved 2015-05-31.{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: unfit URL (link)
  5. ^ a b c "Mali : les précieux manuscrits de Tombouctou – Jeune Afrique". JeuneAfrique.com (in French). 2022-01-21. Retrieved 2023-09-25.
  6. ^ a b "The Brave Sage of Timbuktu: Abdel Kader Haidara | Innovators". Culture. 2014-04-21. Archived from the original on March 18, 2021. Retrieved 2023-09-25.
  7. ^ a b c "Le sort des manuscrits anciens du Mali au centre d'une conférence internationale à Bamako". United Nations (in French). Retrieved 25 September 2023.
  8. ^ a b c d e f g h Hammer, Joshua (2016). The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu and their Race to Save the World's Most Precious Manuscripts. New York: Simon & Schuster. ISBN 9781476777436.
  9. ^ "Towards an omnilingual word retrieval system for ancient manuscripts". Pattern Recognition Volume 42, Issue 9, September 2009, Pages 2089–2105.
  10. ^ "Endangered Libraries In Timbuktu". Endangered Archives Programme. Sep 6, 2017. Retrieved Aug 18, 2020.
  11. ^ "The Timbuktu Manuscripts – Rediscovering a written source of African law in the era of the African Renaissance" (PDF). Uir.unisa.ac.za. Retrieved 2015-05-31.
  12. ^ Walt, Vivienne (September 28, 2009). "Lost Treasures of Timbuktu". Time. Retrieved 4 March 2015.
  13. ^ "CEDRAB - Centre de Documentation et de Recherches Ahmed Baba". 2011-07-25. Archived from the original on 2011-07-25. Retrieved 2021-08-01.
  14. ^ "Islamic Manuscripts from Mali - About the Collection - (Global Gateway from the Library of Congress)". International.loc.gov. Retrieved 2015-05-31.
  15. ^ "Libraries of Timbuktu". Archived from the original on October 10, 2010. Retrieved January 5, 2011.
  16. ^ "Timbuktu Manuscripts Project Continues with Preservation Study Tours". Portal.unesco.org. 2004-11-13. Archived from the original on 2012-07-15. Retrieved 2015-05-31.
  17. ^ Les Chemins du Savoir / Masālik al-Maʿrifa: Manuscrits de Tombouctou: patrimoine partagé / al-turāth al-mushtarak min khilāl makhṭūṭāt Tinbuktū. Rabat: Bibliothèque Nationale du Royaume du Maroc en collaboration avec l'Institut des Hautes Etudes et de Recherches Islamiques Ahmed Baba – Tombouctou, 13–17 Juin 2005. Workshop, exhibit and catalogue. Rabat: Institut des Études Africaines, Université Mohammed V – Souissi, 2005.
  18. ^ John O. Hunwick, Alida Jay Boye, Joseph Hunwick: The Hidden Treasures of Timbuktu: Rediscovering Africa's Literary Culture Archived 2012-05-15 at the Wayback Machine, London: Thames & Hudson, 2008. ISBN 9780500514214. German translation: "Timbuktu und seine verborgenen Schätze", Munich: Frederking & Thaler, 2009. ISBN 978-3894057558. See Amazon preview.
  19. ^ "Towards a conceptualization of the study of Africa's indigenous manuscript heritage and tradition | Minicka |". Tydskrif vir Letterkunde. 45 (1). Ajol.info. 2008-03-05. doi:10.4314/tvl.v45i1.29826. Retrieved June 1, 2022.
  20. ^ "Sands of indifference bury Mbeki's Timbuktu dream". Times Live. Retrieved 2 January 2015.
  21. ^ "Aluka home – now on JSTOR!". www.aluka.org. Retrieved 2022-04-16.
  22. ^ "The Manuscripts of Timbuktu - An in-depth look at an international effort to digitize and help preserve Timbuktu's rich intellectual heritage" (PDF). Aluka Community Focus. March 31, 2008. Retrieved April 16, 2022.
  23. ^ "JSTOR World Heritage Sites: Search Results". www.aluka.org. Retrieved 2022-04-16.
  24. ^ "Timbuktu Manuscripts on JSTOR". www.jstor.org. Retrieved 2022-04-16.
  25. ^ Jeppie, Shamil; Diagne, Souleymane Bachir (2008). The Meanings of Timbukt. Cape Town: HSRC. ISBN 978-0-7969-2204-5.
  26. ^ "Islamic Manuscripts from Mali Collection: Home". International.loc.gov. 2007-11-19. Retrieved 2015-05-31.
  27. ^ "Letter to the warring Tribes". Wdl.org. Retrieved 2015-05-31.
  28. ^ "Safeguarding the Manuscripts from Timbuktu". www.manuscript-cultures.uni-hamburg.de. Retrieved Aug 18, 2020.
  29. ^ Library, Hill Museum & Manuscript (Jan 21, 2020). "HMML Receives $1.4 Million NEH Grant to Preserve and Share Manuscript Heritage". Retrieved Aug 18, 2020.
  30. ^ Harding, Luke (January 28, 2013). "Timbuktu mayor: Mali rebels torched library of historic manuscripts". The Guardian. London. Retrieved January 28, 2013.
  31. ^ Hammer, Joshua (April 15, 2016). "The Librarian who saved Timbuktu's cultural treasures from Al Qaeda". The Wall Street Journal. New York. Retrieved August 14, 2016.
  32. ^ "Saved from Islamists, Timbuktu's manuscripts face new threat - CNN.com". Edition.cnn.com. 2013-05-28. Retrieved 2015-05-31.
  33. ^ a b Yochi Dreazen, “The Brazen Bibliophiles of Timbuktu: How a Team of Sneaky Librarians Duped Al Qaeda and Saved Some of the Ancient World’s Greatest Artifacts,” The New Republic (April 2013), 34.
  34. ^ "More than 95% of the manuscripts evacuated from timbuktu in time - Prince Claus Fund". 2012-10-12. Retrieved 2016-10-02.
  35. ^ Abdel Kader Haidara. "Dear Supporters". t160K. Archived from the original on June 27, 2013.
  36. ^ "Timbuktu Manuscripts in DANGER!". West African Research Association. Boston University.
  37. ^ "Timbuktu Libraries in Exile". Indiegogo. 2013-06-20. Retrieved 2015-05-31.
  38. ^ Russo, Maria Luisa (January 2017). "Contemporary librarianship and special collections issues: a case study in manuscript collections of Timbuktu and other Malian cities". JLIS.it. 8 (1): 39–49. doi:10.4403/jlis.it-12136. Retrieved 2017-01-22.
  39. ^ "The Ancient Astronomers of Timbuktu". Archived from the original on May 2, 2010. Retrieved January 5, 2011.
  40. ^ "Accueil - ARTE". 2009-09-12. Archived from the original on 12 September 2009. Retrieved 2022-03-20.
  41. ^ directed by Lutz Gregor / Gruppe 5. The full film can be viewed online: Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3.
  42. ^ "California Newsreel - THE MANUSCRIPTS OF TIMBUKTU". Newsreel.org. Retrieved 2015-05-31.
  43. ^ "The Lost Libraries of Timbuktu". BBC4. Retrieved 2016-05-13. Although unavailable at BBC, the movie is available at others online video platforms, as "Youtube"
  44. ^ "The Book Smugglers of Timbuktu by Charlie English review – how precious manuscripts were saved". the Guardian. 2017-06-28. Retrieved 2022-03-20.
  45. ^ Zoellner, Tom (2017-06-02). "How a Band of Conspirators Saved Timbuktu's Treasured Manuscripts From Al Qaeda's Torch". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 2022-03-20.

External links[edit]