Located in the West African country of Mali, Timbuktu is named for its concept of a remote place, but the city was once known as a center of learning, religion and commerce. Even today it is known for its dominant clay mosques, and the millions of scholarly manuscripts in public and private collections.
In the 1300’s, Timbuktu was known for its Gingwerber Mosque and Sankori University, both important educational centers. In the 1500’s, Timbuktu experienced a golden age of wealth and commerce, and scholars from all walks of life and from all over the world gathered in the city to exchange knowledge and wisdom.
Scholars have produced numerous manuscripts, covering topics ranging from philosophy to economics, from medicine to agriculture, from astronomy to mathematics and religion. As well as describing how thinkers interpreted political and social situations, they also described everyday life, such as how diseases were treated and how trade took place – even in the bedroom. Also cover advice and black magic.
Muhammad Shahid Mathi, a senior lecturer in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Johannesburg in South Africa, says the manuscripts are “both wonderful and life-changing”, having studied the documents for two decades. “Their access to the earlier claims of African history is merely verbal and religious, but confirms that there is a written intellectual tradition in Africa.”
The need for digitization
Recent history has encouraged initiative. In 2012 and 2013, financial disputes damaged Timbuktu’s drafts. At the time, it was thought that Islamic fundamentalists had destroyed millions of documents, but a concerted effort pushed the majority of the manuscripts out of the firing range and burned only a few thousand. had gone.
Hydra and other librarians took about 350,000 manuscripts to Bamako, the capital of Mali, more than 600 miles from Timbuktu, where they distributed them to 27 houses for safekeeping.
Over time, most of these documents have been returned to Timbuktu, and today more than 30,000 manuscripts have been photocopied and stored safely in more than 30 city libraries. Hydra still preserves these valuable writings, spending most of his days as an indexer – a task for which he has to read the manuscripts before summarizing their contents. But determined to never lose sight of the country’s national heritage forever, he contacted Google in 2014.
“I turned to Google for digitization because I want to record this legacy in West Africa. This legacy from scientists, emperors and philosophers is crucial to protecting it,” Hydra said. Explained
The manuscripts point to Timbuktu’s cosmopolitan past. They are made from a variety of materials, from animal skins to Italian paper, and are written in beautiful Arabic calligraphy. And because of their age, they are fragile.
“As a rule, manuscripts are never taken out of Mali,” says Mathi, and that is why a team of Hydra and Mali archivists was accused of digitizing them. Google shipped equipment from Europe, including a camera with a high-resolution scanner, and it took Hydra’s team eight years to scan and index tens of thousands of pages.
Amit Sood, director of Google Arts & Culture, told CNN: “This is the first time that Google Arts & Culture has done anything on this scale regarding ancient manuscripts and used them publicly on the Google platform.”
Hydra hopes that preserving the documents as well as making them more accessible will keep their history alive.
“When the manuscripts are not read, they have no purpose. We want to take advantage of this opportunity and take out some of the manuscripts so that they can be translated and published to the public.” They say
Spreading Timbuktu’s rich cultural history has other potential benefits for the country.
“For many, finances may not be at the top of your itinerary, but after looking at these pages, you can change your mind,” says Sood.