Timbuktu's Written Heritage

A city known for its manuscripts, university, library, and the scholarly knowledge of the Islamic world they contain

By Google Arts & Culture

Written by Ali Ould Sidi

B-reel animationSAVAMA-DCI

The originality of Timbuktu’s written heritage remains intimately linked to the Islamization of the region which began in the 8th century CE. In the 14th and 15th centuries, this heritage was consolidated by the creation of urban centers, the proliferation of Quranic schools and private libraries, and eventually by the emergence of the University of Sankore.

In the 16th century, Timbuktu, an intellectual and university center, was referred to as a benchmark for the literary and scientific greatness of Sudan: “Salt comes from the North, gold from the South, and silver from the land of the whites, but the words of God, learned things, stories, and wonderful tales are found only in Timbuktu.”

MS N°775 p21 Forebringing blessings and pushing away misfortune, by avoiding unfair rulers by Ahmad BabaSAVAMA-DCI

Timbuktu is still home to significant collections of documents written by natives of the city. The most famous of these is undoubtedly the Nayl al-ibtihaj bi-tatriz al-Dijab by the great Ahmed Baba, who lived between 1556 and 1627. This biographical dictionary written in 1596 deals with the cultural history of Sudan and the intellectual movement in Sahelian Sudan in the 15th and 16th centuries.

Explanation of Khalil's MukhtasarSAVAMA-DCI

In the 17th and 18th centuries, three fundamental documents would enrich Timbuktu’s written heritage: the Tarikh al-Sudan by Abd al-Rahman Ben Abdallah Ben Imran Ben Amir ai-Saadi, the Tarikh al fattash by Mahmoud Kati and Ibu al-Mukhtar, and the Tedzikirat al-Nisyan.

B-reel animationSAVAMA-DCI

A student of Ahmed Baba, Abd al-Rahman Ben Abdallah Ben Imran Ben Amir al-Saadi was born on 28 May 1596 into an illustrious family of ulamas from Timbuktu. He performed important religious functions in both Timbuktu and Djenné.

He began writing his manuscript in around 1629 and completed it in March 1656. It focuses on the Islamization of medieval Sudan and its relationship with the Maghreb, Egypt, and Arabia. The Tarikh al-fattash is a historical work of vital importance about the Songhai Empire; it was compiled by Mahmoud Kati from Kourmina and his grandson Ibu al-Mukhtar, who lived between 1657 and 1669. The book, which ends in 1666, provides extensive information on the social, cultural, and religious life of Sudan and its metropolis: Timbuktu.

B-reel animationSAVAMA-DCI

The Tedzikirat al-Nisyan is an anonymous work dating from the 18th century that deals with the history of the Moroccan Pashalik in Timbuktu. In the 18th and 19th centuries, the Kunta, Al Arawan, and Kel peoples all made unparalleled contributions to the heritage of Timbuktu. Names such as Sidi Al-Mukhtar, the qadi Talibna al wafi al Arawani, and Ahmed al-Bakkai wrote thousands of texts, some of which are now kept at the Ahmed Baba Center while others are scattered throughout the city’s many private libraries.

At its height, Timbuktu boasted a genuine artisanal book industry with a number of workshops for the selection of manuscripts, scribes and calligraphers, proofreaders, bookbinders, and researchers. In 1512, Leo Africanus reported that the trade in books was more profitable than that of any other commodity: “We receive more profit from these sales than from any other goods.”

The Holy QuranSAVAMA-DCI

In the late 16th century, Ahmed Baba al-Sudani mentioned the existence of several manuscript libraries: “I had the fewest of all the manuscript owners and my library numbered nearly 1,600 texts.”

These manuscripts, once kept in trunks, wardrobes, crates, and leather bags have survived through time thanks to the favorable conditions provided by the desert climate. They reveal several different types of Arabic writing: Saharan, Sudanese, Maghrebi, Suqqi, and oriental.

These written testimonies from different centuries deal with several themes, such as the social and exact sciences, as the sample below shows. These manuscripts, which can be described as weapons of mass pacification, also deal with crucial issues of the day, such as bad governance, conflict resolution, and environmental protection.

Credits: Story

Ali Ould Sidi

Credits: All media
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