The Lost Library of Timbuktu

The library on Tuesday opened an exhibit called “Ancient Manuscripts from the Desert Libraries of Timbuktu,” now a small trading town at the edge of the Sahara in Mali. The show is being held in cooperation with the Smithsonian Institution, which on Wednesday opened its annual Folklife Festival on the National Mall, featuring Mali and other areas. The manuscripts range from Koranic teachings to mathematics, physics, medicine and astronomy, according to library researchers. Most are privately held, often by descendants of the original owners.

There may be a million such manuscripts in the 22 private libraries of Timbuktu, said Abdelkader Haidara, executive director of the city’s Mamma Haidara Commemorative Library. He added that in the rest of Mali and neighboring countries – Mauritania, Niger, Burkina Faso – there may be 100 libraries with 5 million manuscripts, from antiquity to the 1800s. Haidara said owners of the libraries are secretive, and some buried their manuscript treasures to protect them from wars in the region before European colonial powers arrived.

Mahmoud Zouber, counselor on Islamic affairs to President Amadou Toure of Mali, told of trying for five years to get one proprietor to open his library to inspection. “One day he finally took me by the hand,” Zouber said, “and led me through two doors to where I could see boxes of manuscripts. `Come back in a week,’ he told me. “When I came back, there was no door. It had been walled up.”

2 thoughts on “The Lost Library of Timbuktu”

  1. Back in my early grad school days I was on a history kick; I read up on the ancient Sumerians, the Celts, the Mongols, Roman history, the Prussians, the Mayans, the Russians, etc. etc. One huge gap I felt I had was on the history of pre-colonial Africa (other than the north Africans and Ethiopians, who I could find quite a bit on) – so I dropped in to the Cornell bookstore thinking, surely in a liberal school like this they should have lots of great history textbooks that covered what I was looking for. No such luck – the closest I could find were some political screeds on how the Egyptians were really black and Africa had lots of other wonderful ancient civilizations whose history we knew nothing about…

    So this sounds very interesting – if anybody does know a good up-to-date book on pre-colonial sub-Saharan African history I’d be interested in looking at that too.

  2. A year or three ago my local PBS station (KCTS) ran a documentary series about Africa. The host was this African American PhD dude from Yale or some such. He went around the continent (re)discovering African achievements, the history of slavery, and so forth. One of the stops was in Timbuktu. He hooked up with some locals who had zillions of books, most uncataloged, deteriating, and largely unknown. Amazing stuff.

    My half-hearted attempts to google a link were unsuccessful, sorry.

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