Sunday, January 31, 2010

A new home for ancient texts in Timbuktu

The Timbuktu Manuscripts - or Mali Manuscripts - some of which date back to the 13th century, are Arabic and African texts that hark back to city's glorious past, when Muslim merchants traded gold from West Africa to Europe and the Middle East in return for salt and other goods.

Written in a variety of styles of Arabic calligraphy by scholars and copyists who were part of an African Islamic intellectual tradition centred in Timbuktu, the manuscripts have shattered the historical view of Africa as a purely "oral continent", pointing to the fact that Africa has a rich legacy of written history.

While most are in Arabic, some are in indigenous languages such as Songhai and Hausa, written using Arabic script.

Their subject matter ranges from philosophy and religion to medicine, astronomy and mathematics, as well as history and literary forms. It also includes manuscripts covering legal judgements and commercial transactions that give a sense of the daily life of the people of Timbuktu.

Some of the manuscripts are beautifully decorated with gold illumination and kept in finely tooled leather covers.

Long-since a symbol in Western popular imagination for remote and exotic destinations, Timbuktu 500 years ago was not only a wealthy trading port, but also a centre for academics and scholars of religion, literature and science.

Timbuktu was founded in around 1100 by ethnic Tuareg nomads near the northern-most bend of the Niger River. Their caravans took salt from Saharan mines to trade for gold and slaves, transported along the river from the south, and by 1330 Timbuktu was part of the Malian empire.

The Tuareg are an ancient nomadic tribe who have traversed the harsh stretches of the Sahara for centuries. It was the tribe's people who came upon a woman by the name of Buktu who had access to a drinking well or 'Tim', and so the 'Well of Buktu' came to be known as 'Timbuktu'.

Two centuries later the city was at the height of its grandeur under the Songhai empire. Timbuktu was described by Spanish Moor Leo Africanus as a centre for "doctors, judges, priests and other learned men [who] are bountifully maintained at the king's expense".

It was also a centre of learning, where thousands of students were taught and large private libraries kept.

But Timbuktu's fortunes sank in 1591 when Songhai was defeated by a Moroccan army. When Portuguese explorers discovered new trade routes along the West African coast, Mali was sidelined. Under France's rule the country continued to slide into poverty and isolation.

While Timbuktu remains a poor, dusty city, visitors still flock there today to experience the aura of mystique and legend that surrounds it.

And it is still home to many philosophers and scholars of Islam, with Sankore University catering to some 15 000 students.

January 22, 2009

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