Located in the West African nation of Mali, the name Timbuktu has come to embody the idea of a distant place, but this city was once famous as a center of learning, religion, and commerce. Today it is still known for its imposing earthen mosques and the hundreds of thousands of scholarly manuscripts found in public and private collections.
In the 1300s, Timbuktu was known for the Djinguereber Mosque and Sankoré University, both important centers of learning. In the 1500s, Timbuktu experienced a golden age of wealth and commerce, and scholars from all walks of life and from all over the world gathered in the city to exchange knowledge and wisdom.
Scholars produced a large number of manuscripts, covering topics ranging from philosophy to economics, from medicine to agriculture, from astronomy to mathematics and religion. As well as revealing how the thinkers interpreted the political and social environment, they also describe everyday life, how illnesses were treated, and how trade was conducted, even covering bedroom tips and black magic.
The manuscripts are “wonderful and transformative,” says Mohamed Shahid Mathee, a senior lecturer in the department of religious studies at the University of Johannesburg, South Africa, who has studied the documents for more than two decades. “Access to them discredits previous claims that African history is simply oral and religious, but affirms that Africa has a written intellectual tradition.”
The need for digitization
Recent history prompted the initiative. In 2012 and 2013, the conflict in Mali endangered the Timbuktu manuscripts. At the time, Islamic fundamentalists were thought to have destroyed hundreds of thousands of documents, but a coordinated effort removed the vast majority of the manuscripts from the line of fire and only a few thousand are believed to have been burned.
Haidara and other librarians smuggled some 350,000 manuscripts more than 600 miles from Timbuktu to the Malian capital Bamako, where they were distributed to 27 homes for safekeeping.
Over time, most of these documents were returned to Timbuktu, and today more than 30,000 manuscripts have been photocopied and are safely stored in more than 30 city libraries. Haidara still protects these precious texts, spending most of his days as an indexer, a job that requires him to read manuscripts before summarizing their content. But determined that the country’s national heritage would never be lost forever, in 2014 he contacted Google.
“I turned to Google for digitization because I want to record this legacy that we have in West Africa. It is of utmost importance to safeguard this legacy that is passed down from scientists, emperors and philosophers,” Haidara explained.
The manuscripts are indicative of Timbuktu’s cosmopolitan past. They are made from a variety of materials, ranging from animal skins to Italian paper, and are written in beautiful Arabic calligraphy. And due to their age, they are delicate.
“As a rule, manuscripts are never taken out of Mali,” Mathee says, so Haidara and a team of Malian archivists took it upon themselves to digitize them. Google shipped equipment including a high-resolution scanner with a camera mounted from Europe, and it took Haidara’s team eight years to scan and index the tens of thousands of pages.
“This is the first time that Google Arts and Culture has done something of this scale with regard to ancient manuscripts and their public availability on the Google platform,” Amit Sood, director of Google Arts and Culture, told CNN.
Haidara hopes that in addition to preserving the documents, making them more accessible will keep her story alive.
“When manuscripts are not read, they serve no purpose. We want to take this opportunity and extract some of these manuscripts to translate and publish them to the public,” she says.
By spreading the rich cultural history of Timbuktu, there are other potential benefits for the country.
“For many people, Mali might not be at the top of their itinerary,” says Sood, “but after visiting these pages, you might change your mind.”