Black History Month: The Lost Libraries of Timbuktu 

Until recently, many commentators on Africa claimed that African societies had no tradition of writing. With the rediscovery of ancient manuscript collections, some dating back to the 8th century AD, this perception is changing. 

Approximately 250,000 old manuscripts still survive in modern Ethiopia. Thousands of documents from the medieval Sudanese empire of Makuria, written in eight different languages were unearthed at the southern Egyptian site of Qasr Ibrim. Thousands of old manuscripts have survived in the West African cities of Chinguetti, Walata, Oudane, Kano and Agadez. 

Despite the many dangers posed by fire, floods, insects and pillaging, some one million manuscripts have survived from the northern fringes of Guinea and Ghana to the shores of the Mediterranean. National Geographic estimates that 700,000 manuscripts have survived in Timbuktu alone.

The Timbuktu Manuscripts
Around 60 libraries in Timbuktu are still owned by local families and institutions, collections that have survived political turbulence throughout the region, as well as the ravages of nature. A good example is the Ahmed Baba Institute, established in 1970, which was named after the famous 16th/17th-century scholar, the greatest in Africa. 

Ahmed Baba wrote 70 works in Arabic, many on jurisprudence but some on grammar and syntax. Deported to Morocco after the Moroccan invasion of Songhay in 1591, he is said to have complained to the sultan there that the latter’s troops had stolen 1,600 books from him and that this was the smallest library compared to those of any of his friends. 

Today, the Ahmed Baba Institute has nearly 30,000 manuscripts, which are being studied, catalogued and preserved. However, during the period of French colonial domination of Timbuktu (1894–1959), many manuscripts were seized and burned by the colonialists, and as a result, many families there still refuse access to researchers for fear of a new era of pillaging. Other manuscripts were lost due to adverse climatic conditions – for example, following droughts, many people buried their manuscripts and fled.

The manuscripts themselves range from tiny fragments to treatises of hundreds of pages.

Four basic types have survived:

  • Key texts of Islam, including Korans, collections of Hadiths (actions or sayings of the Prophet), Sufi texts and devotional texts
  • Works of the Maliki school of Islamic law
  • Texts representative of the ‘Islamic sciences’, including grammar, mathematics and astronomy
  • Original works from the region, including contracts, commentaries, historical chronicles, poetry, and marginal notes and jottings, which have proved to be a surprisingly fertile source of historical data.

The manuscripts themselves are of special importance to their owners for a number of reasons. For example, many people who are descended from the servile classes but claimed noble descent have been caught out by evidence from the manuscripts. Other manuscripts have revealed the unjust dealings of one family with another that may have happened a long time ago but have a bearing on today, such as in disputed land and property ownership.

It begs the question as to why the worth of these manuscripts was not recognized before now. During the colonial period, many of the owners hid their manuscripts or buried them. In addition, French was imposed as the main language of the region, which meant that many owners lost the ability to read and interpret their manuscripts in the languages in which they had originally been written. Finally, it is only since 1985 that the intellectual life of this region has been revived.  Source: Understanding Slavery Initiative 

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