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Timbuktu's Lost Libraries

Timbuktu's Lost Libraries

By Melissa Pandika

View of Timbuktu in 1853, engraving from Travels and discoveries in North and Central Africa, 1849-1855, by Heinrich Barth (1821-1865). Africa, 19th century.


Because ancient texts that might contain answers to our most perplexing scientific questions could one day be lost forever. 

By Melissa Pandika

Although now a remote, dusty city at the southern edge of the Sahara Desert in present-day Mali, 700 years ago Timbuktu was a bustling commercial and academic center. Traders exchanged salt and gold, while Muslim scholars collected and wrote texts on Islam, medicine, astronomy, math, politics and more. 

Founded by Tuareg tribes between the 11th and 12th centuries, Timbuktu’s thriving university and mosque made it the Harvard of its time. Within its walls, scribes copied mostly Arabic texts onto camel shoulder blades, tree bark, sheepskin and papyrus, even embellishing them with gold leaf. 

Some experts think these ancient manuscripts might contain lifesaving cures for modern-day illnesses.

Preserving these manuscripts might maintain more than a cultural lifeline to Timbuktu’s rich history. Some experts think they might contain crucial scientific discoveries — possibly even lifesaving cures for modern-day illnesses. One collection of writings outlines methods of diagnosing and treating disease, recommending the use of leaves, minerals and animal parts.

Many ailments that existed in the ancient past still exist today — like malaria, a disease that kills 660,000 people each year, says Nikolay Dobronravin, a professor who studies ancient West African manuscripts at Saint Petersburg State University in Russia. Although researchers aren’t sure yet whether Timbuktu’s texts mention malaria, it seems likely, given that ancient Egyptian and other texts from the region describe the disease. 

These texts might also contain crucial astronomical insights. One manuscript diagrams the rotation of the heavens and describes how to use the movements of the stars to calculate the beginning of the seasons, while another chronicles astronomical discoveries made by Muslim scholars. Another contains tables listing the positions of the moons and planets, similar to a modern-day almanac.

“Think about all the knowledge that was gained and then subsequently lost.”

But as Islamist rebels retreated from French-led troops in Timbuktu, Mali, last January, they stormed the Ahmed Baba Institute — the city’s largest library, home to 30,000 ancient manuscripts — and torched everything in sight. Bookbinders and other workers at Ahmed Baba burst into tears after learning that these precious texts might have vanished in a column of black smoke.

pages and pages of written word

Ancient manuscripts displayed at the library in the city of Timbuktu. 

Thankfully, not all was lost. Abdoulaye Cissé, the library’s acting director, had moved 2,000 manuscripts to the new library, many safely hidden in a basement. Meanwhile, 72-year-old library worker Abba Alhadi had stuffed thousands of books in rice and millet sacks and transported them to the country’s capital, Bamako. Still others are housed in public and private libraries throughout Mali.

Still, these delicate, calligraphed pages also deteriorate on their own with each passing year as they are subjected to humidity, mildew, insects and other forms of environmental damage. To ward off further losses, Timbuktu’s libraries are backing the pages up on hard drives, while other organizations are scanning and uploading them online. The Tombouctou Manuscripts Project at the University of Cape Town has made a few dozen manuscripts digitally available, while online library Aluka has digitized 300. And the Hill Museum & Manuscript Library set up two digitizing studios and conducted training sessions for local librarians in Bamako last December. 

These efforts get to the heart of a little-discussed issue in scientific research, says Cornell University animal behavior scientist Danielle Lee. “What gets us now is our ability to catalog … information, to continuously and contiguously maintain our ability to know it. Think about what Leonardo da Vinci had discovered — if someone had been around to actually pick up what he carried off. We could have been traveling to the moon 100 or 200 years ago. Think about all the knowledge that was gained and then subsequently lost.”

But historians face major challenges to preserving knowledge from the ravages of time, not to mention armed conflict. Transporting high-resolution cameras or scanners into regions with poor road access can be a huge hassle, and sand can damage delicate equipment. As a result, digitizing a single page could cost $25 — at least. And digital documents require TLC of their own to prevent them from becoming hard to access in obsolete storage technologies.

Still, digitization is our only alternative to allowing scientific and other knowledge from disappearing forever. At a time when scientists are hard-pressed for funding projects to generate new discoveries, maybe we should learn from history’s scribes and turn our focus not just to research, but recordkeeping, too. 

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