Early Exploration of the Earth and Stars

The Timbuktu manuscripts bear witness to the Islamic world’s understanding of geography and astronomy, hundreds of years before Christopher Columbus and Galileo.

Top Afri (W) French Soudan (Mali) TimbuctooLIFE Photo Collection

Astronomy and geography figured prominently among the sciences that developed in the Islamic world from Indian and Greek roots, especially with regard to practical questions linked to the Muslim lunar calendar and the seasons. Muslim astrology also developed using data based on astronomy.

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The intense intellectual environment of the Sudanese universities paved the way for geographical exploration across African seas to Europe and America.

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According to some historians, Mansa Abubakari II, the emperor of Mali who assembled two fleets of two hundred ships, sent two expeditions into the Atlantic as early as 1310, 182 years before Christopher Columbus.

India and the Middle East (1596) by Jan Huyghen Van LinschotenKalakriti Archives

All this proves that the Sudanese were already aware of the secret maps of transatlantic maritime routes that Christopher Columbus would buy at a premium two centuries later.

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‘On the explanation of the book Lāmiyyat al-‘Ajam’

The following manuscript is a 16th-century copy of the manuscript ‘Combination of happiness on the explanation of the book Lāmiyyat al-‘Ajam’, written by Ṣalāḥ al-Dīn Khalīl b. Abīk al-Ṣafadī.


“Mathematicians demonstrate the phenomenon of an eclipse that occurs between the various stars. The star that occupies a lower position eclipses that which is in a higher position.

Since the moon eclipses the other stars, they have judged it to be the closest star to the Earth.


This is also thus between Mercury and Venus, Venus and Mars, and Mars and Jupiter, the former eclipsing the latter which are therefore in lower positions."

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Commentary on ‘The Enlightened Path to Astronomy’

The next manuscript is a commentary on a text composed in verse by Abd al-Rahman al-Akhdari (1575), a great jurisconsult and multidisciplinary scholar. He wrote about logic, arithmetic, and astrology, including the annotated text he entitled ‘Al-Siraj fi ‘Ilm al-Falak’ or ‘'The Enlightened Path to Science and Astronomy’.


“It is important to note that the distribution of the year between the four seasons is based on the observation of socio-religious interests; this theory is championed by farmers, doctors, and astrologers.

Winter, according to farmers, begins when the sun positions itself between the start of Scorpio’s journey and the end of Aquarius’s journey, namely on February 22.

They believe summer begins when the Sun takes its position between the beginning of the journey of Pisces and the end of that of Leo."

This type of manuscript based on astrology, in use since the 16th century to understand the position of the stars and set the new year, is still common in Timbuktu. A celebration is held in Timbuktu on the 10th day of the Muslim New Year (or Ashura) to predict and plan for events that may happen in the coming year.

Top Afri (W) French Soudan (Mali) TimbuctooLIFE Photo Collection

This celebration brings together the whole community for readings from the Quran. It ends with a form of clairvoyance, or a proclamation of events, and the announcement of the sadaqah or alms that the communities and the local and regional chief must perform as sacrifices for the good of the year ahead.

Regional, local, municipal, and religious authorities meet at the Alpha Seku Mosque in the Saraykeina district to make a prediction for the coming year.

The mosque’s imam refers to major events that may take place in the year ahead and reads out the alms or sacrifices that must be made by the various sections of the population to compensate for potentially unpleasant events. The celebration draws to a close with a fatiha (the opening surah of the Quran), spoken by the imam to wish everyone a happy new year.

The Lighthouse at Alexandria (published 1610) by Antonio TempestaLos Angeles County Museum of Art

Gift to Friends on the Elite Wonders

Muḥammad b. ‘Abd al-Raḥīm al-Mᾱzinī al-Gharnᾱtī al-Awqalīshī Abū Ḥᾱmid was an Arab traveler born in Granada in 1080. His travels took him to Alexandria in Egypt in 1114 and Baghdad in Iraq in 1122.

[The Damascus Gate] (1857) by James Robertson, Felice Beato, and Antonio BeatoThe J. Paul Getty Museum

Three years later, he moved to Mosul, where he met a scholar named Mu’in al-Din. This scholar encouraged him to write about what he had seen and heard on his many trips. In response, he wrote the book Gift to Friends on the Elite Wonders.


“It is important to know that the universe is made of stars, air, water, and earth, with all that it contains above, below, and around it.

The inhabited part of the Earth is estimated at a hundred years of walking, from North to East and from North to West. With the exception of this part of the Earth, humans do not inhabit anywhere else due to the proximity of the sun and its inclination to the South (opposite of the North).

The North is cool and dry; the West is cool and humid; the East is hot and dry. The heat of the East meets the freshness of the North, as well as the freshness and humidity of the West.

These crossing points are the most balanced places on Earth, the most suitable for animals and plants. This is why God has chosen to have humans live here, by His grace and His generosity."

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The presence in Timbuktu of manuscripts on the rotation of the planets and eclipses provides proof of the knowledge of mathematics in the city 200 years before Galileo and Copernicus.

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