Mali Trip Report

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Malian Manuscripts in Timbuktu: A Report

It has been my dream to visit the historical city of Timbuktu (Timbuctu, Tombouctou) on the edge of the Saharan Desert in Mali. D.W. Berky, leader of the first American expedition, arrived in 1912 for a one-year visit. I arrived 96 years later without the hassle of a camel caravan, rather I had a short delay at the south side of the Niger River while we summoned the ferry with a cell phone. Below is a brief report of my findings.


Recently, family manuscripts stashed in attics or forgotten in trunks have been located, processed, and shared with scholars. These documents underscore the importance of the towns of Timbuktu, Segou, and Djenne as centers of learning dating to the 14th century at a time when Europe was languishing in disease and ignorance.

Institut Ahmed Baba

Djibril Doucoure
Chief, Division of Conservation & Preservation

Timbuktu has the largest and most organized collection of Malian manuscripts. The 15th century intelligentsia, judges, doctors, imams, and professors, required a reference collection for practicing their profession. Ahmed Baba, who wrote 56 books, was an ancestor of the prominent Aqit family who promoted literacy.

Today, the director at the Institut Ahmed Baba, collaborates with many organizations to catalog, preserve, conserve, digitize, and promote the manuscripts of local families. The South African government is financing the building of a new library. President Gadaffi (Libya) has donated funds (Gadaffi Prize for Peace) to maintain and protect manuscripts.

The collection is ever growing as more families donate their treasures. The texts include law, history, science, medicine, poetry, and theology. In July 2008, the Institut held a workshop for database catalogers of Arabic manuscripts where many of the most famous texts such as the Tarikh es-Sudan and several Qurans were on display. Some of these texts are written in various African languages including Arabic using Arabic script. The medieval form of the languages requires a slow process for translating into contemporary major languages.


The Association de Sauvegarde des Manuscrits et la Defense de la Culture Islamique (SAVAMA-DCI), an NGO (non-governmental organization), has provided members with resources to digitize 600 manuscripts from the Mamma Haidara Library, the Imam Essayouti Library, al-Wangari Library, Library of Cheick Zayni Baye, and the Fondo Kati Library. The digitized texts will be housed on the Aluka database so that researchers worldwide may have access to the resources. This digitization process also provides visual representation of the calligraphy, color of the ink, and gold leaf. Unfortunately, this process has yet to capture the odor and texture of the leather covers and parchment or velum.

Several organizations have become involved in assisting the conservation process. In 2007, the Northwestern University staff installed a digital photography studio and trained member technicians with Andrew Mellon Foundation funding.

In addition to financial support from government and non-government organizations, the family libraries have devised other means to earn money to cover some costs. Some charge admission for tourists to view manuscripts or copies, and the Heinrick Barth house is converted into a museum on calligraphy. The Imam Essayouti Library staff sell post cards of manuscripts and reproductions of texts in their collection, as well as books and articles about the preservation process. The libraries also provide an Internet café for tourists as an incentive to visit the collections. In addition, funds earned this way supported the renovation of the library at Djenne and Boujbeiha (a suburb of Timbuktu).


Saadou Traore,

Djenne is Timbuktu's younger sister city located south on an island in the Niger delta. It was founded in the 13th century as a commercial and intellectual center. After the fall of the Mali and Songhai empires, Djenne experienced successive invasions and pillages. The arrival of Sekou Amadou in 1819 did not improve the situation. The city had 300 years of exploitation by regimes without authority or legitimacy. When the French invaded in 1893, Col. Archinard lost interest in the historic city and moved his headquarters to Mopti. Fortunately, for the preservation of family libraries, the town was not destroyed or modernized.

The Djenne library is directly behind the mosque. Funds from the European Union, the U.S. Embassy, and UNESCO have contributed to the building and administration of the facility. It is located in a two-story building. Several rooms display manuscripts while others are used for the collection and storage of trunks of books. The staff comprises the director and a technician. At the time of my visit, the technician was in Timbuktu at the cataloging workshop.

These libraries and their collections of manuscripts dispel the notion by Europeans that West Africa had no literary tradition. Westerns can benefit from the contents of the manuscripts in terms of law, economics, social morals, medicinal practices, history, astronomy, mathematics, and literature. In addition to the need for preservation and conservation of the manuscripts, there is a need for scholars knowledgeable of the culture and languages (Arabic, Hebrew, Fulani among others) to translate the materials. Consequently, these materials are a window to a world gravely misunderstood and often referred to derogatorily.

Patricia S. Kuntz



Arabic Manuscript (Library of Congress)

Libraries of Timbuktu for the preservation and promotion of African Literary Heritage

Northwestern University, Herskovits Library of African Studies


Timbuktu Educational Foundation