Timbuktu manuscripts

Although reports have been confused it appears that only a small percentage of the precious manuscripts in Timbuktu were recently damaged or stolen. The perpetrators were Islamic extremist who have been in control of the city for around 10 months. People working a the libraries managed to remove the majority of manuscripts from harm.

Timbuktu in Mali, Africa was established in the 12th century and  is a city with a long history of scholarship and architectural beauty. This was recognised in 1990 when UNESCO declared the city a World Heritage Site.

Although originally founded by the Imagharen Tuareg, throughout its history, the population of Timbuktu has always been diverse. Books and scholarship have also been an important and core part of the culture, with the peak of prolific intellectual activity taking place during the Songhai Empire (1468 – 1591). The city was also a centre for book trade during the 16th century.

Ref: Niger Saharan medieval trade routes, 1400 CE, Author: TL Miles, Wikimedia Commons

The Moroccan invasion in 1591 resulted in the end of the intellectual and commercial importance of the city. However, the value and importance of scholarship and the power of the written word had become ingrained in the culture. Timbuktu's veritable treasure trove of ancient handwritten texts in Arabic and African languages are from the 13th century through to the 20th century and cover a wide range of topics.

The manuscript libraries of Timbuktu are significant legacies and repositories of scholarly production in West Africa and the Sahara. It is estimated that there are about 300,000 surviving manuscripts in Timbuktu and the surrounding areas.

The establishment of the South Africa-Mali Timbuktu Manuscripts Project in 2003 recognises the importance of these text. As part of this project, a new library-archive building was opened in Timbkutu in 2009. The Tombouctou Manuscripts Project at the University of Cape Town (UCT) is dedicated to researching and translating the texts. Since 2004, digitisation of some of the manuscripts has also been undertaken. The project is also involved in manuscripts collections found in Mozambique and Madagascar.

Auckland Libraries has a number of heritage resources relating to Mali and West Africa in general including: books and manuscripts such as letters from David Livingstone to Sir George Grey (GL L30.11, GL 30.14 - enter West Africa into the keyword search box of the Manuscripts Online database).


  1. More news about the Timbuktu manuscripts (please copy & paste this link into your browser):


  2. Find out about efforts to help preserve this global cultural heritage from imminent loss. Please copy & paste this link into your browser:


  3. Latest on the removed manuscripts (please copy & paste this link into your browser): http://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2013/oct/01/mali-manuscripts-timbuktu


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