Sunday, February 10, 2013

The Manuscripts of Medieval Timbuktu

Before militants fled Timbuktu last month, they set fire to the library inside the Ahmed Baba Institute. The library housed thousands of treasured manuscripts, some of which the militants tried to burn. But as it turns out, thousands of texts had already been stealthily removed by librarians and security guards. At night, library staff packed manuscripts onto donkey carts and transported them to boats on the Niger River. Then, the boats sailed to Mopti, which was out of militant control. From Mopti, a truck, took the manuscripts to Bamako, Mali’s capital. But even the few hundred manuscripts that the militants burned had reportedly already been digitized.

Manuscripts in the library included the Tariqh al-Sudan (History of the Sudan), a 17th century narrative of the history of the Songhai Empire. The Songhai Empire rose in the 14th century after the Mali Empire began to fall. The capital of the Songhai Empire was another historic Malian city – Gao. The Tariqh al-Sudan, called Timbuktu:
"a refuge of scholarly and righteous folk, a haunt of saints and ascetics, and a meeting place for caravans and boats." 
Other manuscripts also included Korans, inventories, receipts, letters and documents on medicine, chemistry, geography, history, astronomy, literature, poetry, grammar, magic, botany, mathematics, women’s rights and law. Most documents were written between in Arabic, but others were written in Songhai, Tamashek, and Bambara.

The new library in the Ahmed Baba Institute housed tens of thousands of manuscripts and it has been estimated that these manuscripts were one-fifth of all the texts in the Timbuktu area. Documents outside of the library were in Timbuktu’s public and private libraries or hidden in the city and in surrounding towns. The library staff wanted to restore and digitize Timbuktu’s documents, but residents were still reluctant to loan or even sell their manuscripts, wanting to protect their heritage themselves.

Over the years many residents of Timbuktu tried to preserve these documents, vigilant in their mission to protect their history from invasions from Morocco, the Songhai Empire, and France in the late 19th century. They have also had to face the challenges of termites, the passage of time, and illegal trafficking of manuscripts. Residents have hidden these family heirlooms under furniture or floors or in the desert sand to protect them. Sometimes old hiding places are found, the original owners long forgotten about the hiding place. During this most recent invasion by militants residents once again hid their family manuscripts to preserve their history.

Between the 12th and 17th centuries Timbuktu was a city of learning for scholars from all over the world. There were refugees from Spain, teachers and students from Cairo, Baghdad, and Persia, and intellectuals from the Mali and Songhai Empires. It developed from a trading center, and by the 16th century had become a university town. The learning spread to other cities like Gao and Djénné. It was in the early 16th century that Askia Mohammed ruled the Songhai Empire, a huge West African empire which included Timbuktu. During that time, adventurer and visitor Hassan ibn Muhammed al Wazzan al Fasi (also known as Leo Africanus) wrote:

“In the city are many judges, doctors, and clerics, all well-financed by the king, who greatly honors lettered men…Many hand-written books are sold there that come from Barbary, and from these more is earned than from any other merchandise.”

 Sankoré Mosque by Baz Lecocq

Camel caravans brought salt to Timbuktu. From the 12th century onwards, scholars came with these caravans, transporting thousands of texts on their journey. Merchants also brought textiles and spices from places like Granada to Mecca, in exchange for gold, ivory, and slaves from Ghana. Goods were bought and sold with cowrie shells and gold nuggets. Scholars began to leave Timbuktu after late 16th century invasions from Morocco forced them from the city.

In addition to manuscripts, modern Timbuktu is home to historical buildings. The most famous being three large 13th and 14th century earthen-brick mosques – Djingarey Ber, Sankoré, and Sidi Yahia – which formed the University of Timbuktu. The militants destroyed many of the tombs at these mosques several months ago.   Unesco officials are preparing to rebuild the tombs.

Further Reading
Ibn Battuta's: Travels in Asia and Africa 1325-1354
Leo Africanus: Description of Timbuktu
Tombouctou Manuscripts Project


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