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Timbuktu Manuscripts or (Tombouctou Manuscripts) is a blanket term for the large number of historically important manuscripts that have been preserved for centuries in private households in Timbuktu, Mali. The collections include manuscripts about art, medicine, philosophy, and science of the late Abbasid Caliphate, as well as priceless copies of the Quran. The number of manuscripts in the collections has been estimated as high as 700,000.
The majority of manuscripts were written in Arabic, but some were also in local languages, including Songhay and Tamasheq. The dates of the manuscripts ranged 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). Their subject matter ranged from scholarly works to short letters. The manuscripts were passed down in Timbuktu families and were mostly in poor condition. Most of the manuscripts remain unstudied and uncatalogued, and their total number is unknown, amenable only to rough estimates. A selection of about 160 manuscripts from the Mamma Haidara Library in Timbuktu and the Ahmed Baba collection were digitized by the Tombouctou Manuscripts Project in the 2000s.
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. 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.
In 1970, UNESCO founded an organization which included among its tasks preservation of the manuscripts, but it went unfunded until 1977. 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.
The Timbuktu Manuscripts Project was a project of the University of Oslo running from 2006 to 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. It was funded by the government of Luxembourg 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 Ambassador's Fund for Cultural Preservation. Among the results of the project are: reviving the ancient art of book binding 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 (IHERIAB); digitizing a large number of manuscripts held at the IHERIAB; facilitating scholarly and technical exchange with manuscript experts in Morocco and other countries; reviving HERIAB's journal Sankoré; and publishing the splendidly illustrated book, The Hidden Treasures of Timbuktu: Historic City of Islamic Africa.
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:
- a better conservation of the manuscripts (100 listed manuscripts, 10 described manuscripts, 2 digitalized manuscripts, 10 restored and protected manuscripts)
- a better scientific utilisation of the manuscripts
- 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 description of 10 000 manuscripts through standardized registration forms.
The Tombouctou 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. 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.
A book about Timbuktu, published in 2008, contains a chapter with some discussions of a few of the texts.
Digital images of thirty-two manuscripts from the private Mamma Haïdara Library are available from the United States Library of Congress; a subset of these are also accessible from the United Nations' World Digital Library website.
Also in 2009, the French/German cultural TV channel ARTE produced a feature-length film about Timbuktu's manuscript heritage: Tombouctou: les manuscrits sauvés des sables | Timbuktus verschollenes Erbe: vom Sande verweht, directed by Lutz Gregor / Gruppe 5. The full film can be viewed online: Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3.
Another film on the subject was also released in 2009, entitled "Manuscripts of Timbuktu. The film was made by South African director Zola Maseko, executive produced by the South African Broadcasting Corporation and distributed by California Newsreel.
Destruction and evacuation of manuscripts
Many of the manuscripts were reported destroyed in January 2013, along with many other monuments of medieval Islamic culture in Timbuktu, by the Islamist rebels of Ansar Dine in the Northern Mali conflict. The Ahmed Baba Institute and a library, both containing thousands of manuscripts, were said to have been burnt as the Islamists retreated from Timbuktu. Journalists, however, found that at least one of the libraries was largely undamaged, and that only a few small piles of ash were present, suggesting that at least some of the document survived. A former Malian presidential aide, as well as several other people involved with preserving the manuscripts, said that the documents had been evacuated into a safe location in 2012 before the fighters invaded Timbuktu. U.S. based book preservation expert Stephanie Diakité and Dr. Abdel Kader Haidara, 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. 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. However, once in the south the manuscripts faced a new danger from 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".
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