Why Does Timbuktu Matter?

Image of damaged pages from a manuscript in Timbuktu showing the effects of the gradual loss of paper. Photo credit: Alexio Motsi and Mary Minicka for the Timbuktu Manuscripts Project.

Image of damaged pages from a manuscript in Timbuktu showing the effects of the gradual loss of paper. Photo credit: Alexio Motsi and Mary Minicka for the Timbuktu Manuscripts Project.

“Timbuktu sits on the edge of Saharan desert. It was a trading entrepôt in the age when the camel was the only means of transport and it became a centre of commerce in the region; trade in books come to be part of that exchange network. The city and its desert environs are an archive of handwritten texts in Arabic and in African languages in the Arabic script (mainly, Fulani and Songhay), produced, it appears, between the 13th and the 20th centuries. The earliest date of written heritage is still speculation for no scientific tests have been done on inks and paper.

A recent estimation by a prominent Timbuktu researcher and collector, Abdel Kader Haïdara, refers to 101,820 manuscripts, stored in about numerous private libraries and a state-run archive in the town.  By manuscripts we mean hand-written books, not handwritten scrolls.  Moreover, the handwriting reflects a series of regional styles of calligraphy mostly unique to West Africa.

The texts included in the manuscripts display a wide range of topics, covering the traditional Islamic sciences. The majority are works on Qur’anic sciences, Theology, Jurisprudence, Mysticism, Grammar, Medicine, Mathematics, History and Esoteric Sciences such as Astrology and Numerology. Some of these works were written by eminent Muslim scholars from all over the Islamic world, while others were composed by local scholars and their students. In addition, the Timbuktu libraries contain materials relating to local concerns, such private letters as well as official state correspondence, legal documents and fatwas (juridical rulings).

The libraries of Timbuktu are significant repositories of scholarly production in West Africa and the Sahara. They are part of a larger regional phenomenon of book collecting across the Saharan and Sahel regions. These manuscripts are a unique and invaluable treasure and heritage which sheds light on this vast area’s African past, from the age of the great African states of the pre-colonial and into the colonial periods.

This documentation debunks the still prevalent stereotype that Africa is a continent only characterized by oral cultures and lacking of any written heritage. The scholarly culture of Timbuktu demonstrates the close link between written and oral heritage, that represent a continuum more than a break. In this light, the dichotomy between oral and written culture often referred to in relation to Africa is unsustainable.

Given the large number of manuscript collections it is surprising that Timbuktu, as an archive still remains largely unknown and under-utilized. Conservation efforts are on-going but there is much left to be done and only a small percentage of the manuscripts has been digitized. Moreover, few of these manuscripts have been properly catalogued, studied and translated.

Among the works translated from Timbuktu are the two major chronicles, the Ta’rikh al-Sudan by al-Sa‘di, and the Ta’rikh al-Fattash, of contested authorship. These chronicles describe the apogee of Timbuktu during the epoch of the Songhay state in the 16th century. The authors offer us a clear portrait of the city’s vibrant intellectual life and include copious biographical notes on its scholars. Among them Ahmad Baba is one of the most famous; he was such a prolific scholar that he left more than sixty works on different topics. Deported to Marakesh after the Moroccan conquest of Timbuktu in 1591, Ahmad Baba managed to become a renowned scholar there where he taught in some of the most celebrated study-circles of North Africa before returning to his homeland.

However, Ahmad Baba is not the only representative of the learned environment of Timbuktu. Other scholars came before him, the likes of Muhammad al-Kabari, the first scholar in the chain of transmission of learning from Timbuktu who lived in the 15th century, or Muhammad Bagayogho, Ahmad Baba’s teacher. Other scholars came after the apogee of Timbuktu. The well-known family of the Kunta, with Sidi al-Mukhtar, Sidi Muhammad, Ahmad al-Bakkay and Shaykh Bay dominated the intellectual life of Timbuktu for almost one century and a half, from the late 18th to the early colonial period. During the French occupation, it was Ahmad Bul‘araf who distinguished himself. Bibliophile and entrepreneur of the book market, he owned a workshop for copying manuscripts that overrun the libraries of the city as testified by the huge number of documents bearing his signature. He was himself quite a prolific scholar.

The manuscript culture in Timbuktu does not only belong to the past, if we consider that one of the most important scholars of the present, Shaykh Hammu, continues to produce works in manuscript format.

Timbuktu is a significant starting-point for reflecting on Africa’s written traditions. In fact, it does not represent an isolated case in the continent. Other West African regions, as well as other areas such as Ethiopia, the East African coasts from Somalia to northern Mozambique, as well as in the Cape since Dutch rule, were characterized written cultures that were in the Arabic script.  Only comprehensive research on this inadequately charted heritage will give us fuller understanding of many aspects yet unknown of Africa’s past.”

Authored by Mauro Nobili (Ph.D. in African Studies at the University of Naples “L’Orientale” [2008] and Post-Doctoral fellow at the Tombouctou Manuscripts Project – University of Cape Town), Susana Molins-Lliteras (Ph.D. candidate in Historical Studies and researcher at the Tombouctou Manuscripts Project – University of Cape Town) & Shamil Jeppie (A/Prof., Director Tombouctou Manuscripts Project –University of Cape Town).

Source: Tombouctou Manuscript Project

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