BAMAKO, Mali. In an air-conditioned room on a quiet tree-lined street in Mali’s capital, Bamako, three young men sat at tables with cameras mounted over their heads, took one page of parchment from the tall piles to their left, pressed the shutter button, and reached for the next page. Click. Flash. Repetition.
One of the men, Amadou Koita, said he had been doing the job for five years. But the work is far from over. Rooms full of metal chests full of manuscripts await him.
The documents are part of many tens of thousands of old manuscripts—legal documents, copies of the Quran, scholarly writings—that have been preserved for centuries and passed down to the desert-dwelling families to whom they belonged, or collected in libraries. And suddenly they were in danger.
Now, after years of careful preservation, cataloging and digitization, more than 40,000 pages from one of Timbuktu’s largest libraries are available for everyone to study. on Google Arts & Culture.
“Africans learned to write earlier than many outside of Africa,” said Andogoli Gindo, Mali’s minister of culture. “These manuscripts may shed light on part of Africa’s past.”
But bringing them to a wider audience faces significant hurdles. For the most part, they are indecipherable to people not brought up in the West African Islamic tradition – those who cannot read Arabic, as well as African languages, written in a modified Arabic script known as Ajami. Only a small part of the documents are translated, because there are not many scientists with the necessary skills for this.
“There has been very, very little work to excavate the contents of the manuscripts,” he said. Abdulbasit Kassim, historian of West and Central Africa, specializing in manuscripts. “What exactly can the manuscripts tell us about the history of Africa? What can they tell us beyond the different phases of African history, from spirituality to science, to medicine, mathematics, astronomy, astrology, logic, philosophy, esoteric sciences?
The richness of West African manuscripts testifies to an extensive writing tradition on the continent dating back centuries, in contrast to past claims by Western colonizers and scholars that characterized African societies as oral rather than written.
Manuscripts from Timbuktu show that city scientists discovered that the Earth revolves around the sun — around the same time as Galileo — and used mathematics much earlier than scientists in other parts of the world, said Cynthia Schneider, co-author director Timbuktu Revitalization Initiativewhich recently organized a raucous event in Bamako, culminating in a dance party, in honor of the launch of the Google project.
Scientists also millions of pages created jurisprudence, writings about the prophet Muhammad and mysticism.
But for modern purposes, the most useful parts of the Timbuktu manuscripts, which also contain travel diaries, correspondence, and sexual advice, may be those dealing with fair governance, anti-corruption, and conflict resolution.
“Every problem has a solution in manuscripts,” said Abdel Kader Haidara, librarian who helped coordinate the rescue documents from Timbuktu. He pulled off his mask to reveal a lush moustache, finished off his glass of attaya, a sweet, strong tea, and put the mask back on. “We have to use them.”
mr. Haidara founded SAVAMA-DCI, a Timbuktu manuscript preservation NGO that partnered with Google on project. At the group’s offices in Bamako, some of the manuscripts are kept in specially made boxes to protect their leather bindings and fragile calligraphy and illustration pages, often with tiny bright colors.
Segou, a river town in south-central Mali, was another center of learning and scholarship in region. It housed the library of Omar Tal, a scientist, politician and military figure born in the 1790s, whose library was seized by the French colonial authorities and taken to Paris.
A few months ago in Segou, during the dry season, dozens of Muslim scholars and local figures gathered in a high-roofed hall when Tierno Bashir Tall, a descendant of Omar Tall, read a copy of a text preserved in several manuscripts. It was as if the scientist had spoken to them through the ages. The fans whirred and the rosary clicked softly as they listened.
mr. Tall looked up from a copy of the manuscript in bold Arabic type. “Look at the old manuscripts left to us by our ancestors,” he said, smiling.
In the text, the scientist, using religious arguments, tried to resolve the conflict between the leaders of the empires of Borno and Sokoto, which formed West Africa. Five translators translated the version they studied into French and Arabic using three different copies of the manuscript.
The story 200 years ago was depressingly familiar. Religious leaders are mired in power struggles. Muslims with different views exchange insults. Believers attack, even kill each other.
Modern Mali also suffers from similar problems; a decade of fighting between jihadists and a mosaic of national and international militaries has often left civilians caught in the middle.
Omar Tull composed his treatise while crossing the Sahara, a journey “so hard and tiring,” he wrote, complicated by the serious illness of his wife and brother. He cited verses from the Koran, hadiths – sayings attributed to the prophet Muhammad – and commentaries by Muslim scholars condemning clashes between believers.
Ségou scholars have looked to his experience for inspiration to end modern conflict.
“What Sheikh Omar Tall did to bring peace to Borno and Sokoto – people from Segou can use the same tactics to talk to people from Mopti, Bandiagara and so on,” his descendant said, referring to the areas of Mali and switching between them. French and Bambara, the most spoken language of the country. “There is no development without peace.”
His audience listened, some men in robes tying their woolen scarves tighter despite the 100-degree heat.
The city of Ségou has largely escaped the conflict that has erupted in Mali over the past decade, but armed groups and brutal soldiers have done damage on nearby vulnerable towns and villages, and the people in the town are fed up.
“They should sit and talk,” said Malik Dara, who opened the Peace and Reconciliation Café so people from different communities can do it while enjoying platters of liver and tomatoes.
Back in the hall, many in the audience agreed that the manuscripts could help bring peace, but some pointed out that translations into more Malian-speaking languages, such as Bambara, would be more helpful than French.
Others felt that the reading list should have been expanded.
“You have to invite many villages living under jihadist rule,” said one of them, Umar Cisse. “Hearing this will heal their hearts.”
Mamadou Tapli provided the report.