In January of 2013, French and Malian forces seized Timbuktu from the Islamist militant group Ansar Dine, which had taken over the desert city for almost a year, laying siege to mausoleums and establishing Shariah law in the interim. As the group’s last hurrah, they set fire to the Ahmed Baba Institute, a library that held approximately 30,000 works, some dating to the 12th century. At the time, scholars worried that the desecration of the archive represented “the greatest loss of the written word in Africa since the destruction of the library in Alexandria.”
Sorrow in the aftermath of the event was followed by a miraculous revelation: Most of the manuscripts had been salvaged, thanks to an effort spearheaded by librarian Abdel Kader Haidara. In total, 350,000 manuscripts from 45 libraries across the city had been kept safe from Ansar Dine by volunteers. They capture an intellectual tradition of inquiry into subjects as diverse as astronomy, ethics, jurisprudence, geography, and philosophy and evince a rich written record in Africa, one whose value is often overlooked outside the continent.
Now, some 40,000 manuscripts — many of which survived not only the most recent attack but also the French conquest of Timbuktu in 1893, when the treasured texts were pillaged from libraries — have been digitized and are viewable as part of Mali Magic, a collaboration between Google Arts & Culture and a number of local and international organizations including Haidara’s preservation nonprofit group SAVAMA; Timbuktu Renaissance; and Instruments 4 Africa.
The project showcases in equal parts the tradition of learning and preservation efforts that have kept these artifacts intact. Timbuktu was an economic and political hub in sub-Saharan Africa, ruled by a series of West African dynasties. Some estimates place a quarter of Timbuktu’s residents in the 16th century as students, enrolled at over 150 schools throughout the city. “Salt comes from the North, gold from the South, and silver from the land of the whites, but the words of God, learned things, stories, and wonderful tales are found only in Timbuktu,” one account from the 16th century related. In that same time period, Leo Africanus reported that the book industry was the most profitable one in Timbuktu.
Many of the manuscripts are loose pages bound together by goatskin. The Arabic script that lines each sheet varies in calligraphic style, ranging from an older, blocky style, a thicker one associated with Hausa tradition of West Africa, and a curved one originating from North Africa. Some of them show the marks of centuries of engagement and interpretation, with annotations in smaller font adorning the space in between lines and around the sides.
“Some of these manuscripts were passed on from generation to generation among students in Timbuktu — it was one of the largest university centers in the world,” said Chance Coughenour, who led the digitization project at Google Arts & Culture. “They’re basically historians trying to interpret different passages that were written 200 years before.” Many of the documents were also copied by hand from earlier ones, with the scribe inserting their own opinions of the meaning of the text into the margins. Some other features of various manuscripts include gold leaf, botanical diagrams, and ornate decorations.
A selection of manuscripts that may particularly pique users’ interest includes debates on whether smoking should be permitted; an argument for tolerance toward Christians and Jews; and Koranic self-help passages on improving orgasms.
Also as part of the digitization project, Google Arts & Culture sent a Street View team to Mali resulting in virtual tours of a number of cultural heritage sites, such as the Great Mosque of Djenne and the Sankore Mosque, accompanied by audio guides. In collaboration with Instruments 4 Africa, they also produced a series of films about musical traditions and instruments from different regions of Mali. Finally, a few videos and virtual exhibits display the work of modern artists working in Mali today.
“It’s important to recognize this is a project that captures the past and the present,” Coughenour emphasized, adding, “I recommend readers to explore, take a break, go back, and continue to explore.”
Brooklyn Public Library, which is the sole North American and library co-sponsor of the project, will be hosting a series of events throughout March to accompany the project’s online release. A keynote discussion between Haidara, philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah, and literary critic Henry Louis Gates, Jr. will be held at the library’s central branch on March 17. On May 31, the library will also hold an interactive reading, guided by archivists, librarians, and writers who will discuss the importance of the digitized manuscripts and the digitized platform.