The libraries of Timbuktu (by the 1300s) in Mali contain over 400,000 manuscripts, mostly from the city’s glory days from the 1300s to the 1500s. The manuscripts range from contracts and sales receipts to books of religion, law, poetry, astronomy and history. Thanks to Timbuktu’s hot, dry weather (it stands at the edge of the Sahara), its deep love of books and its history as a seat of high learning, it has preserved an amazing treasure from Africa’s past.
In 2012, the Ahmed Baba Institute, the largest library, moved from Timbuktu to Bamako, the capital. The weather there is not as good for preserving books, but its current political climate is much better:
Ansar Dine, jihadist warlords with ties to Al Qaeda, ruled Timbuktu from 2012 to 2013. It put its own strict form of Islam into effect. While it was busy destroying the tombs of the city’s Sufi saints, the Institute was busy secretly getting its books to Bamako. When Ansar Dine at last discovered the books at the Institute’s Timbuktu building, it burned them – but did not think to look in the basement! In the end the Institute was able to save 95% of its manuscripts.
Timbuktu has been through this before – with the French. They ruled from 1893 to 1960. Like Ansar Dine, they thought they had all the answers and burned books, wanting everyone to forget the past and do things their way. So people hid their books from the French too.
And before that, the region went through jihads, holy wars, which are unkind to books.
And before that, in 1591, Morocco, armed by Queen Elizabeth I, destroyed the city and sold many of its people to work as slaves in the Americas. Among those sold were doctors, judges, writers, musicians and artists.
So a custom of hiding books took hold. Some of the older families have thousands of books. They are hidden not just in the city, but even out in the desert.
From the 1300s to 1500s, Timbuktu was part of the Mali and Songhay empires. Like Alexandria in its day, Timbuktu was a centre of international trade and a seat of high learning. The rich owned books to show off their wealth.
As a seat of learning, Timbuktu helped to interpret Islam for its part of Africa. Its sort of Islam was well-reasoned and moderate – which made its books dangerous to jihadists.
Most of the books are in Arabic, the Latin of West Africa. Most of the rest are in Songhai, but some are in Wolof, Hausa, Fulfulde (Fulani) and Tamasheq (Tuareg). There are books from Mali, Niger, Ethiopia, Sudan, Nigeria, Saudi Arabia, Spain – and even Greece: Plato, Aristotle, Ptolemy and Hippocrates.
The Ahmed Baba Institute has 400,000 manuscripts as of 2015. Most have yet to be translated or studied. The Institute is working to digitize its manuscripts, putting them on computer where they can be shared with the world and be harder to wipe out.
Beyond the Institute, there are maybe 300,000 manuscripts still in hiding.
– Abagond, 2015.
- Greek authors: Plato, Aristotle, Ptolemy
- “Go back to Africa”