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.

©UNESCO/Alida Boye
A manuscript from Timbuktu (Mali)


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.
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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.

Long forsaken treasures

©UNESCO

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 African panorama rises to the surface of history

©UNESCO/Alida Boye

To 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