Libraries In The Sand Reveal Africa’s Academic Past

Nick Tattersall, Reuters, Nov. 10, 2006

Researchers in Timbuktu are fighting to preserve tens of thousands of ancient texts which they say prove Africa had a written history at least as old as the European Renaissance.

Private and public libraries in the fabled Saharan town in Mali have already collected 150,000 brittle manuscripts, some of them from the 13th century, and local historians believe many more lie buried under the sand.

The texts were stashed under mud homes and in desert caves by proud Malian families whose successive generations feared they would be stolen by Moroccan invaders, European explorers and then French colonialists.

Written in ornate calligraphy, some were used to teach astrology or mathematics, while others tell tales of social and business life in Timbuktu during its “Golden Age,” when it was a seat of learning in the 16th century.

“These manuscripts are about all the fields of human knowledge: law, the sciences, medicine,” said Galla Dicko, director of the Ahmed Baba Institute, a library housing 25,000 of the texts.

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Bookshelves on the wall behind him contain a volume on maths and a guide to Andalusian music as well as love stories and correspondence between traders plying the trans-Saharan caravan routes.

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Experts believe the 150,000 texts collected so far are just a fraction of what lies hidden under centuries of dust behind the ornate wooden doors of Timbuktu’s mud-brick homes.

“This is just 10 percent of what we have. We think we have more than a million buried here,” said Ali Ould Sidi, a government official responsible for managing the town’s World Heritage Sites.

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The United States and Norway are helping with the preservation of the manuscripts, which South African President Thabo Mbeki has said will “restore the self respect, the pride, honor and dignity of the people of Africa.”

The people of Timbuktu, whose universities were attended by 25,000 scholars in the 16th century but whose languid pace of life has been left behind by modernity, have similar hopes.

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