Reclaiming the Ancient Manuscripts of Timbuktu

Chris Rainier
for National Geographic News
May 27, 2003
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Riverboats come from the South,
Salt camels come from the North,
Wisdom & Knowledge reside in Timbuktu
—Tamashek Proverb

Where the great sands of the Sahara meet the savannas of North Africa, lies the fabled city of Timbuktu. A mythical destination, Timbuktu is but a mirage of the imagination for most people. But since the 12th century, Timbuktu has been a forbidden place and one of the most august centers of Islamic learning and trade within Muslim society. Yet since the late 1800s, the city's importance had declined, drifting to the sandy edges of the Sahara desert and into the imaginations of the New World's folklore.

Beginning in the 12th century, Timbuktu was becoming one of the great centers of learning in the Islamic world. Scholars and students traveled from as far away as Cairo, Baghdad, and elsewhere in Persia to study from the noted manuscripts found in Timbuktu. Respected scholars who taught in Timbuktu were referred to as ambassadors of peace throughout North Africa.

An integral part of Timbuktu history was always trade—the exchange of salt that came from the heart of the Sahara desert. To this day, camel caravans laden with salt, also known as "the gold of the desert," journey to Timbuktu, in present-day Mali, West Africa, where the salt is sold in the markets of the Niger River towns of Mopti, Djénné, and beyond.

Since the 12th century, accompanying the camel caravans rode the intrepid scholars of Islamic learning, bringing with them over time hundreds of thousands of manuscripts. These bound texts highlighted the great teachings of Islam during the Middle Ages. These sacred manuscripts covered an array of subjects: astronomy, medicine, mathematics, chemistry, judicial law, government, and Islamic conflict resolution. Islamic study during this period of human history, when the intellectual evolution had stalled in the rest of Europe was growing, evolving, and breaking new ground in the fields of science, mathematics, astronomy, law, and philosophy within the Muslim world.

By the 1300s the "Ambassadors of Peace" centered around the University of Timbuktu created roving scholastic campuses and religious schools of learning that traveled between the cities of Timbuktu, Gao, and Djénné, helping to serve as a model of peaceful governance throughout an often conflict-riddled tribal region.

At its peak, over 25,000 students attended the University of Timbuktu.

By the beginning of the 1600s with the Moroccan invasions from the north, however, the scholars of Timbuktu began to slowly drift away and study elsewhere. As a result, the city's sacred manuscripts began to fall into disrepair. While Islamic teachings there continued for another 300 years, the biggest decline in scholastic study occurred with the French colonization of present-day Mali in the late 1890s.

Today, Timbuktu still holds the allure of its namesake. But clearly it has drifted to the edges of the desert as a dusty adobe outpost that holds defiantly onto the title of being the gateway to the mystical Sahara.

Down the sand filled alleyways and into mud homes lie the private collections of the sacred manuscripts that date back over some 600 years. The Ahmed Baba Research Center houses the largest collection. Some scholars estimate that there are over 700,000 manuscripts housed throughout collections in Timbuktu.

With the pressures of poverty, a series of droughts, and a tribal Tureg rebellion in Mali that lasted over ten years, the manuscripts continue to disappear into the black market, where they are illegally sold to private and university collections in Europe and the United States.

However, through the efforts of the Timbuktu Heritage Institute, the manuscripts of Timbuktu are beginning to be re-catalogued, preserved, and protected against theft.

Issa Mohammed, president of the Timbuktu Heritage Institute, said: "By stopping the illegal trafficking, not only we are preserving the heritage of Timbuktu, of the Islamic world, and of Africa, but we are preserving a message of love, peace, and living together in a multicultural world."

Today Timbuktu, designated as World Heritage Site by the United Nations Education, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), lies at a crossroad. Forgotten for centuries to the sands of the Sahara desert, Timbuktu's rich legacy of sacred manuscripts could possess a treasure chest of African history.

Stories in This Series:
Tribe's Cultural Survival Preserves Fox Prophets, Sacred Masks
In Sahara, Salt-Hauling Camel Trains Struggle On
Reclaiming the Ancient Manuscripts of Timbuktu
Explorer Wade Davis on Initiative to Document Cultures on the Edge

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