Friday, November 10, 2006

Timbuktu Texts

Reuters reports on scholars working to recover manuscripts from Timbuktu:
"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.

"'Here is a political tract,' he said, pointing to a script in a glass cabinet, somewhat dog-eared and chewed by termites. 'A letter on good governance, a warning to intellectuals not to be corrupted by the power of politicians.'"

Later in the article, someone says there could easily be over one million texts in all. What's funny about the article, though, is the way they're being held up by people like Thabo Mbeki as part of an "African" heritage. They certainly are, in the sense that sub-Saharan Africa has come to see itself as a cultural unit, but as Timbuktu was an important center of Islamic learning, it's an open question whether the people writing them would have seen themselves as closer to the Nguni or the Arabs.


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