The Surprising Things You Can Read in the Timbuktu Manuscripts

From black magic and aphrodisiacs to mathematics and peace-keeping

By Google Arts & Culture

Words by Robert Bevan

Destruction de manuscrits par les djihadistes à l'Institut Ahmed Baba à Tombouctou en 2012SAVAMA-DCI

When the jihadis confiscated Radio Communal Bouctou’s tapes; when they destroyed Malian singer Khaira Arby’s guitars; when they enforced dress codes about veils and trouser cuff lengths at the end of a gun or a camel skin whip; the librarians of Timbuktu realized that there was trouble ahead.

2013 Evacuation manuscripts Timbuktu, copyright Prince Claus Fund (6)SAVAMA-DCI

The remarkable, ancient manuscripts in the librarians’ care numbered more than 370,000. If the militants’ narrow and literal interpretation of the Koran was fulfilled, they would have no less hesitation in burning documents up to 600-years-old that cover subjects as broad as peace-keeping, astronomy, mathematics, fortune-telling and sex tips, as they had in taking sledgehammers to historic shrines.

Dramane Mouleye Haidara, fondateur de la bibliothèque Sidi Zeyane by © Laeïla AdjoviSAVAMA-DCI

The stealthy rescue of the fragile manuscripts by car and boat from under the noses of the Islamist intruders has brought attention back to the content of the documents themselves, inked on to Italian paper, goat, sheep and even fish skins.

IMAGE 31-3 Représentation de Tombouctou par Caillé in Voyage à Tombouctou et à Jenné, dans l'Afrique CentraleSAVAMA-DCI

Many date from Timbuktu’s 16th century Golden Age when the city’s command of trading routes across the Sahara made it rich with knowledge as well as gold and silver. At its peak, during the 16th century, it has been estimated that the University of Timbuktu had some 25,000 students roughly a quarter of the city’s population.

Page décorée du Coran du manuscrit de type haoussa offert par la famille Danfodio à la famille Haidara (19ème siècle) by SAVAMA-DCI Manuscrit n° 33 667SAVAMA-DCI

Timbuktu’s easy-going version of Islam saw men socialize with women and a love of music and dancing produced an intellectual environment where, according to Joshua Hammer’s The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu, a manuscript Advising Men on Sexual Engagement with their Women could be produced. 

The Holy QuranSAVAMA-DCI

Among its recipes for aphrodisiacs and elixirs to enhance fertility was advice on which Koranic verses could intensify and prolong orgasm. Such writings represent an ease and liberalism that horrify the puritans of ISIS/Da’esh and its ilk, today.

Atelier de fabrication des boîtes chez SAVAMASAVAMA-DCI

The Mali documents are enormously varied and included writings that originated in the region as well as those brought in from across the Islamic world and laboriously copied by scribes.

The Holy QuranSAVAMA-DCI

Some are written in verse to aid memorization such as a poem about Islamic law as it relates to the rights of orphans and married women. Others discuss slavery, whether smoking should be banned and why Christianity and Judaism should be tolerated.

Manuscrit d'astronomie, SAVAMA-DCISAVAMA-DCI

More esoterically, black magic, the mystical deeds of saints, and necromancy – communing with the dead – are covered. The manuscript Knowledge of the Movement of the Stars and What it Portends in Every Year is based on Greco-Roman astronomy as elaborated by Muslim thinkers.

2013 Evacuation manuscripts Timbuktu, copyright Prince Claus Fund (2)SAVAMA-DCI

Timbuktu’s manuscripts were renowned for their physical beauty as well as their wisdom. Calligraphy styles included the broad slashes of the West African Hausa tradition, Persia’s stylized horizontally, and the whorls and sweeps of curvaceous North African lettering. There are beautiful, centuries-old Korans with gilding and calligraphy within.

The Holy QuranSAVAMA-DCI

Training to write and copy Mali’s manuscripts could take decades, while there were traveling Ambassadors of Peace who went from town to town spreading the ideas the manuscripts contained.

The Holy QuranSAVAMA-DCI

Scribes decorated the manuscripts with intricate patterns inspired by the natural forms of plants and flowers and the complex geometries characteristic of Islamic architecture, carpets and other non-figurative arts and crafts. Some include drawings of mosques and mountains and are protected by covers studded with semi-precious stones.

The Holy QuranSAVAMA-DCI

In this they rival the better-known Medieval Christian manuscripts from Europe with their illumination and fabulous beasts such as the Book of Kells. Both traditions include carefully scripted margin notes where later scholars have debated the interpretations of a manuscript’s previous readers in a conversation lasting for decades or centuries.

The Holy QuranSAVAMA-DCI

A ‘colophon’ at the end of each document incorporated its date as well as the translators, scribes and proof-readers, each paid in gold dust, who carried out the various tasks.

Un manuscrit relié au fil by SAVAMA-DCISAVAMA-DCI

Among the most famous of Malian manuscripts – many of which can now be viewed online after painstaking digitization and conservation – is Letter to the Warring Tribes – that uses Koranic arguments to stop the fighting and live in peace, and Curing Disease and Defects Both Apparent and Hidden, a book for diagnosis and treatment that includes instructions for prayers to use in protective amulets and which animal, plant and mineral ingredients to prepare as medicines.

Les outils du copiste by SAVAMA-DCISAVAMA-DCI

As Timbuktu’s Golden Age faded in the 17th century following Moroccan invasions, manuscripts continued to be produced but eventually the tradition fell into decay and the manuscripts themselves became fragile, forgotten outside the city but still protected by librarian families who passed them down the generations.


Even within the city, French colonialism meant that Arabic speaking was neglected and the manuscripts’ contents became less and less understood. This only encouraged Eurocentric and racist views of sub-Saharan Africa being uncivilized.

Dr. Abdel Kader Haidara of SAVAMA-DCI (2016) by Timbuktu RenaissanceTimbuktu Renaissance

It wasn’t to be until the 20th century that the intellectual, historical, and artistic treasure that the manuscripts contained began to be appreciated to any great degree once more. Just in time for them to be threatened once more then saved from destruction.

Credits: Story

Robert Bevan

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