The lost libraries of Timbuktu

One evening last week I happened to see part of a BBC4 TV programme, The lost libraries of Timbuktu:

Aminatta Forna tells the story of legendary Timbuktu and its long hidden legacy of hundreds of thousands of ancient manuscripts. With its university founded around the same time as Oxford, Timbuktu is proof that the reading and writing of books have long been as important to Africans as to Europeans.

I couldn’t watch this programme for long — too much left-wing or “blacks are wonderful” propaganda, and not much hard information at all.

However I did learn from it that there is a trove of hand-written books in Timbuktu.  They all stem from the Moslem invasion of West Africa in the middle ages.   The oldest are 13th century.  The older books were in Arabic; the more recent ones in tribal languages, written in Arabic script.  The latter were naturally preferred by the modern holders of the books.  During the French period — the only period of civilised rule it has ever known — an unspecified number were rescued and carried off to an unspecified destination (we are invited to consider this as an “indignity”!).  Doubtless they are in the French National Library, and probably properly catalogued too, although this was not said.  Wild estimates of the number of such books were tossed around; anything up to 700,000 was mentioned, although this seems unlikely.  We saw a desktop scanner being used to digitise a page.

There was lots of talk about “riches” of books.  But… what precisely do these texts contain?  How many are of what age?  This I could not learn.

I found online a Moslem Timbuktu Educational Foundation — based in California, as it seems the “riches of African culture” don’t extend to adequate internet connections.  They claim to own the manuscripts.  The site solicits a donation of $100 to preserve and translate each manuscript — although the contact form doesn’t work, and the one and only newsletter is dated to 2003.  The site also is infuriating vague, but gives a little more:

The manuscripts cover diverse subjects: mathematics, chemistry, physics, optics, astronomy, medicine, history, geography, Islamic sciences and traditions of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him), government legislation and treaties, jurisprudence and much more.

Yes?  So, which authors?  Which texts?  Is there a catalogue?  And… can’t they get some money off the oil-rich states, being good Moslems and all?  (I certainly would, in their shoes).

The BBC is to be commended for commissioning a programme on manuscripts.  Someone there should be shot for making a piece of political agitprop instead.  A wasted opportunity, then; but still good to see manuscripts on the box.  More please.

PS: The Washington Post has a much better article on all this here.  Manuscripts are 16-18th century.  Some of the mss are online at the Library of Congress here.  See also this article.

2 Responses to “The lost libraries of Timbuktu”


  1. pat

    I also watched part of this program.couldn’t see it all,it was broadcast starting ( 1 am here in canada.I agree about the poltiical slant-unnecessary at best,and distracting.I believe there are christian coptic texts in ethiopia hundreds of years older.still an interesting outpost in the medieval moslem world of learning.one cannot deny that their grasp of science at the time equalled the western world’s.what has happened to their forward thought in the interim I would rather not say on an open forum.cheers from the dominion mate.pat.

  2. Roger Pearse

    I agree — we could use a decent programme on books in Ethiopia as well. I’m sure many of these are in danger. Unfortunately the BBC tends to send Moslems to Ethiopia to sneer at the monks, rather than someone who would be interested and enthusiastic.