Located in the West African nation of Mali, the name Timbuktu embodies 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 impressive terracotta mosques and hundreds of thousands of academic manuscripts held in public and private collections.
In 1300 Timbuktu was known for the Djinguereber Mosque and the University of Sankoré, both important centers of learning. In 1500, Timbuktu experienced a golden age of wealth and commerce, and scholars from all walks of life and from around the world converged on the city to exchange knowledge and wisdom.
Scholars have produced a vast number of manuscripts, covering topics ranging from philosophy to economics, medicine to agriculture, astronomy to mathematics and religion. In addition to revealing how thinkers interpreted the political and social environment, they also describe everyday life, how diseases were treated and how trade took place, also covering bedroom advice and black magic.
The manuscripts are “wonderful and life-changing,” says Mohamed Shahid Mathee, a senior lecturer in the religious studies department at the University of Johannesburg, South Africa, who has been studying the documents for over two decades. “Access to them disproves previous claims of African history as merely oral and religious, but affirms that Africa has a written intellectual tradition.”
The need for digitization
Recent history has prompted the initiative. In 2012 and 2013, the conflict in Mali put Timbuktu’s manuscripts in danger. At the time, hundreds of thousands of documents were thought to have been destroyed by Islamic fundamentalists, but a coordinated effort brought the vast majority of manuscripts out of sight 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 Mali’s capital Bamako, where he distributed them to 27 homes for safekeeping.
Over time, most of these documents were returned to Timbuktu, and today over 30,000 manuscripts have been photocopied and are safely stored in over 30 libraries in the city. Haidara still protects these precious texts, spending most of his days as an indexer, a job that requires him to read the manuscripts before summarizing their contents. But determined to never see the country’s national heritage lost forever, he contacted Google in 2014.
“I turned to Google for digitization because I want to record this legacy that we have in West Africa. This legacy that is passed down by scientists, emperors and philosophers is of the utmost importance to safeguard,” Haidara explained.
The manuscripts are indicative of Timbuktu’s cosmopolitan past. They are made with a variety of materials, ranging from animal skins to Italian paper and written with beautiful Arabic calligraphy. And due to their age, they are delicate.
“As a rule, manuscripts are never taken out of Mali,” says Mathee, and so Haidara and a team of Malian archivists were tasked with digitizing them. Google sent equipment from Europe including a high-resolution scanner with a mounted camera and crawling and indexing the tens of thousands of pages that Haidara’s team took eight years to complete.
“This is the first time that Google Arts and Culture has ever done something like this with regards to ancient manuscripts and exploited them publicly 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 their history alive.
“When the manuscripts are not read, they have no purpose. We want to take this opportunity and extract some of these manuscripts to translate and publish them to the public,” he says.
By spreading Timbuktu’s rich cultural history, there are other possible benefits to the country.
“For many people, Mali may not be at the top of your itinerary,” says Sood, “but after visiting these pages, you may change your mind.”