Stacks of manuscripts, Timbuktu
Researchers at work, Timbuktu

Since 2002, when the idea of the formation of the Tombouctou Manuscripts Project first emerged, we have been involved with various aspects of the study of the manuscript tradition of Timbuktu, Mali. This city was a great centre of learning and was famous in West Africa and far beyond, from the 13th to the 20th centuries. Local scholars and their students recorded their scholarship – original works and copies – in manuscripts, or handwritten texts.  Our project has been very much concerned with the diverse content of the manuscripts, the circulation of scholars and ideas, the economy of the manuscript book, and other aspects of the “work of scholarship” in Timbuktu.

A selection of legal texts (initially 100 manuscripts of varying size) was digitised at the Mamma Haidara Library in Timbuktu in January 2004. Another 60 manuscripts from the Ahmed Baba collection were subsequently also digitised for research by the project. At the very inception of our project, it was decided that at least some of the manuscripts digitally captured would be studied in more detail, which included translating them into English. In 2004 we embarked upon the actual study of the digitised manuscripts by producing workbooks comprising selected texts.

Since then, manuscripts of varying lengths and on various topics have been closely studied and also translated, serving as a basis for research, including doctoral and master’s thesis work. We look at various aspects of the manuscripts, including: legal and social history; scholarly elites; history of the book and book collecting; history of reading in West Africa and African Arabic calligraphy.

The research and translation of the Timbuktu manuscripts still continues today. However, the scope of the project is broadening, to encompass writing cultures from other parts of the African continent.

Stacks of manuscripts, Timbuktu
Swahili Manuscript, Mozambique

New discoveries of collections have been identified in Mozambique and Madagascar, in both Arabic and so-called Ajami (Makua in Arabic script, Malagasy in Arabic script). Existing collections in Zanzibar (in Arabic and Swahili) have been supplemented with new work on private libraries. A recent publication of a collection of legal materials from coastal Somalia has directed attention to materials there. In Ethiopia there is a long-standing tradition of Coptic Christian writing in Amharic and research on Amharic book arts is necessary; there are also texts written in both Arabic and Amharic in Addis Ababa archives. The list of examples goes on and covers many parts of the continent.

There are multiple questions that are emerging with the “rediscovery” of various manuscript collections on the continent. The two main areas that the project aims to focus on are “the history of books” in Africa, and the state of the archives in which these manuscript books reside. The former places the African world of books firmly within an international discussion in the growing field of “the history of books”, where it has no presence at the moment. The latter, a more practical issue, approaches the way in which archives are constituted and appropriated: the politics of the archive.