What's Special About the Timbuktu Manuscripts?

Characteristics and specific features of the remarkable manuscript collection


Manuscrit en turc écrit en caractères turcs anciensSAVAMA-DCI

The manuscripts: original texts as well as copies

The content of the manuscripts consists of: 
1. Subjects discussed by foreign authors whose writings were known in the region, studied, and taught by local scholars or the authors themselves. 
2. Subjects discussed by foreign authors, but commented on or rewritten in verse by local scholars, therefore considered local production. 
3. Subjects discussed initially by local authors.

Un manuscrit en peul transcrit en arabe (ajami), SAVAMA-DCISAVAMA-DCI

West African books were written in Arabic characters, sometimes transcribed phonetically from local languages, such as Fulani, Songhai, Hausa, Wolof, Mandingo, Soninke, or Tamasheq. This type of local language content transcribed using the Arabic alphabet is known as “Ajami”.
Many prestigious documents were produced locally, including the Tarikh al-fattash, Tarikh al-Sudan, and texts by Ahmed Baba.

Assemblies of HaririSAVAMA-DCI

A range of content: literature and poetry

Literature and poetry are strongly represented: poems written as tributes to well-known figures, women, the Prophet... but also poems on the most diverse subjects. Some textbooks are written in verse, making it easier for students to memorize. 

In the poem ‘Qasīdah’ (opposite), Sayyid al-Mukhtar ibn Ahmad ibn Abi Bakr al-Kunti al-Kabir teaches his students Islamic law on the rights of orphans and married women. His use of verse made it easier for his students to memorize the text.

Manuscrit de métrique, SAVAMA-DCISAVAMA-DCI

Some texts were also written in poetic meter. Arabic meter is defined as the set of rules that distinguish correctly measured lines from those that are inaccurate. This science studies the measurements of a line, in other words, the sequences of short and long syllables attached to each line.

It was theorized in the 8th century by the philologist Al-Khalil ibn Ahmad, who presented the metric as a model structured in levels.

Quran manuscript close upSAVAMA-DCI

A range of content: religious texts

There are many religious texts. These include: prayers, poems to the glory of Allah and the Prophet, practical religious manuals, Sufi manuals, etc. References to sacred texts are widespread in the manuscripts that are not specifically religious, such as legal documents and rules of behavior.

2013 Evacuation manuscripts Timbuktu, copyright Prince Claus Fund (3)SAVAMA-DCI

A range of content: arts

Music is rarely represented in the manuscripts, with the exception of some representative samples such as the musical instruments in the diagram opposite.

Manuscrit d'astronomie, SAVAMA-DCISAVAMA-DCI

A range of content: astronomy and astrology

Astronomy and astrology are common themes in the manuscripts. The solar system is described as a collection of planets and stars revolving around the Earth, according to the pattern that dates back to Ptolemy (2nd century CE).

Representations of the sky usually give pride of place to the 12 constellations that make up the zodiac: the astrological signs are an integral part of the sky charts.

Manuscrit de géographie, SAVAMA-DCISAVAMA-DCI

A range of content: geography

Descriptions of places and journeys.

Manuscrit de Sidi Ahmad b. A’mar al Raqadi de Tombouctou (XVIIe siècle)SAVAMA-DCI

A range of content: scientific texts

There are also a great many scientific texts on botany, pharmacy and pharmacopoeia, medicine, mathematics, sexology, etc.

Manuscrit de ‘Abdullah b. Muhammad b. ‘Usman b. Fudio (XIXe siècle)SAVAMA-DCI

A range of content: how to behave

The manuscripts include a great deal of behavioral advice. In Islam, individuals have “personal status”, which depends on the category or categories to which they belong: man, woman, child of a particular age, Muslim, non-Muslim, believer of a monotheistic religion, slave or servant, foreigner, guest, etc. These statuses define the rights and duties of everyone and therefore what is “lawful” or ”unlawful” with regard to sacred texts. These rules of behavior sometimes gave rise to debate; for example, one manuscript will consider smoking unlawful, while Ahmed Baba, in another manuscript, takes the opposite position. Judges relied on these rules to make judgments...

Manuscrit Muhammad al-Mustapha b. ‘Abd al-Rahman connu sous le nom d’Ibn Zarfat (1800)SAVAMA-DCI

Judgments and jurisprudence

Many manuscripts are documents with a legal significance: fatwas (judicial decisions), case law reports, the judgments made by qadis on a range of different subjects (ownership of land and animals, birth, marriages, and divorces). These legal documents offer an understanding of life in society, its frequent problems, and the solutions provided.

IMAGE 21-1 Manuscrit comparé révisé par un notaireSAVAMA-DCI

A range of content: “certified” manuscripts

Some manuscripts have been “revised” or “certified” and bear the signature of the “adviser” or “certifier”.

Un manuscrit relié by Source - SAVAMASAVAMA-DCI

Forms and materials: bound manuscripts

The manuscripts vary in size and are either in separate sheets or bound into “notebooks”. These bindings are sometimes sewn with thread.

The manuscripts do not include punctuation. The word “fin” designates the end of a text.

Cette décoration dans un Coran signale la fin d'un paragraphe et le début d'un autre by SAVAMA-DCISAVAMA-DCI

Forms and materials: writing rules

The manuscripts contain very few crossings-out as professional copyists were subject to rules that had to be respected to make the text readable. For example, the copyists used: the symbol (خ ) to indicate the variant in another copy, the symbol (ط) to indicate additional information or to explain a word, the symbol (ع) to indicate a doubt about a word, the symbol (ب ) to correctly certify a word, the symbol (صح ) to indicate a correction, the symbol (وقف ) to mark the stopping point in the revision and correction of the copy.

Les outils du copiste by SAVAMA-DCISAVAMA-DCI

Forms and materials: the tools of the copyist

Copyists used a calamus, or reed pen with a split nib, dipped in an inkwell. There were different types of calamus depending on the different type of writing required. The inks were made locally, in different shades. Lampblack and charcoal were used, as was gum arabic and plants to provide the color (mango leaves for green, sorghum leaves for red, etc.).

Des outils de traçage by SAVAMA-DCISAVAMA-DCI

The copyists used plotting tools to copy in regular lines. These plotting tools had a kind of weft of aligned threads that, when wet, would be pressed onto the paper to leave a temporary mark.

SAVAMA-DCI has inkwells and the various components required to make ink.

Explanation of Khalil's MukhtasarSAVAMA-DCI

Forms and materials: different colors

There were many different colors. A text was often copied in inks of various colors.

Manuscrit ornementé, SAVAMA-DCISAVAMA-DCI

Forms and materials: rich decoration

Some of the manuscripts are enriched with decoration. The decoration and illumination of manuscripts began as early as the 11th century, but only began to flourish in the 13th century. This decoration could be very diverse: page framing, calligraphic decoration, various diagrams and representations, illumination, etc. They were sometimes produced by specialist artists as well as by the copyists themselves. Sometimes the manuscripts contain empty spaces left for decoration or illumination.

Un exemple de calligraphie by Source - SAVAMASAVAMA-DCI

Forms and materials: calligraphy

The different types of calligraphy found in the Timbuktu manuscripts are Suūdᾱnī, Sahrᾱwī, Sūqī, Maghribī, and Sharqī. Book art reached its peak in the 16th century, in the Middle East, Persia, and West Africa.

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