Located in the West African country of Mali, the name Timbuktu was coined to embody the concept of a distant place, but the city was once famous as a center of study, religion and trade. Today, it is still known for its impressive earthen mosque and hundreds of thousands of scholarly manuscripts in public and private collections.
In the 1300s, Timbuktu was famous for its important learning centers, the Zingerever Mosque and the University of Sancore. In the 1500s, Timbuktu experienced a golden age of wealth and trade, and scholars from all over the world gathered in the city to exchange knowledge and wisdom.
Scholars have produced a vast number of manuscripts covering topics ranging from philosophy to economics, medicine to agriculture, astronomy to mathematics and religion. Not only does it show how thinkers interpreted the political and social environment, but it also describes everyday life, such as how diseases were treated and trades were made.
The manuscript is “amazing and life-changing,” says Mohamed Shahid Mathee, a senior lecturer in the Department of Religion at the University of Johannesburg, South Africa, who has been studying documents for over 20 years. “Access to them exposes the claim that previous claims about African history are simply oral and religious, but confirms that there is a written intellectual tradition in Africa.”
The need for digitalization
Recent history has sparked initiatives. In 2012 and 2013, conflicts in Mali jeopardized Timbuktu’s manuscript. Hundreds of thousands of documents were thought to have been destroyed by Islamic fundamentalists at the time, but it is believed that the majority of the manuscripts were removed from the launch ship and only a few thousand were burned through a joint effort.
Haidara and other librarians smuggled some 350,000 manuscripts from over 600 miles from Timbuktu to Bamako, the capital of Mali, and distributed them to 27 homes for storage.
Over time, most of these documents were returned to Timbuktu, and today more than 30,000 copies have been copied and safely stored in more than 30 libraries in the city. Haidara still protects this precious text and spends most of her time as an indexer. But determined to never see the country’s national heritage disappear forever, he contacted Google in 2014.
“I wanted to document this legacy that we have in West Africa, so I turned to Google for digitization. This legacy from scientists, emperors and philosophers is the most important thing to protect,” explains Haidara. .
Manuscripts represent Timbuktu’s international past. They are made from a variety of materials, from animal skins to Italian paper, and are written in beautiful Arabic calligraphy. And because of their age, they are delicate.
“In principle, manuscripts are never taken out of Mali,” says Mathee, so Haidara and the Malian team of archivists were tasked with digitizing the manuscripts. Google sent equipment from Europe, including high-resolution scanners with cameras, and it took Haidara’s team eight years to complete, scanning and indexing tens of thousands of pages.
Amit Sood, director of Google Arts and Culture, told CNN: “This is the first time that Google Arts and Culture has done something of this scale with ancient manuscripts. “He said.
Haidara hopes to keep their history alive by making documents more accessible as well as preserving them.
“If the manuscript isn’t read, it’s meaningless. We want to take this opportunity to extract some of these manuscripts, translate them, and publish them to the public,” he says.
Propagating Timbuktu’s rich cultural history has other advantages possible for the country.
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