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Last Updated: Monday, 3 October 2005, 14:59 GMT 15:59 UK
Saving Mali's written treasures
By Justin Pearce
BBC News website, Johannesburg

Decorated manuscript
The manuscripts reveal how Arabic script was adapted
People around the world know the name Timbuktu but few know where it is, or why a town now in northern Mali has achieved such fame.

In the 16th Century, the town was a centre of Islamic learning with links extending as far as Spain in the north and Central Asia in the east.

"We are looking at an earlier phase of globalisation in the region," Dr Shamil Jeppie of the University of Cape Town, who is part of a joint South African and Malian project to preserve the vast intellectual heritage of Timbuktu.

"People ask me if these manuscripts are the work of Arab scholars, but no, they were Africans," Dr Jeppie says.

When the kingdom of Andalucia, now part of Spain, was conquered by Christians in 1492, the Moors who had ruled the kingdom for 600 years fled to Africa, some of them arriving eventually in Timbuktu.

Documents from as far away as Central Asia have also been found in Timbuktu.

The subject matter ranges from music to science
"There are still lots of gaps in our knowledge - that's why I'm so passionate about this research," Dr Jeppie says.

Although Timbuktu reached its peak as a centre of scholarship in the 16th Century, the earliest manuscript ever found there dates from 1201.

The legacy of this period comprises thousands of manuscripts, on subjects ranging from music to optics, which are still to be found in Mali today, their paper preserved - for now - by the dry air of the Sahel region.

But with manuscripts scattered among numerous libraries and private collections, there has previously been no systematic attempt to stop the gradual deterioration of the paper, or to provide easy access for international scholars.


The South Africa-Mali project is an initiative using South African expertise to help preserve Timbuktu's documents.

Dr Mohamed Gallah Dicko
Mohamed Gallah Dicko: Institute in Mali will benefit from investment
The South African government is helping to fund a research centre and to develop the skills of the people who will work there.

"This will help to increase the capacity and opportunities for studying these manuscripts," says Dr Mohamed Gallah Dicko, of the Ahmed Baba Institute in Timbuktu - the institute that houses the most important collection of manuscripts.

A selection of the Timbuktu manuscripts has gone on display at Johannesburg's Standard Bank Gallery, to give South Africans a glimpse of the material that the South Africa-Mali project is working with.


The manuscripts are all on paper, and none are bound together. The loose leaves are kept together in covers of wood or leather.

Some are intricately decorated, others include scientific diagrams or musical notation - others contain only writing, be it elaborate calligraphy or simply notes that spill into the margins.

Up to now, Mali has lacked specialised preservation facilities for the manuscripts
But the writing itself is a point of fascination for scholars. Dr Jeppie points out the different styles in which Arabic script was adapted by the various nations who adopted Arabic as their language of learning.

Essop Pahad, South African minister in the office of the president, said the centre South Africa is helping to build in Mali would help to preserve the documents for another 500 or 600 years.

"This was not just a question of us making a small contribution to helping Mali preserve this fantastic history, but also to help raise the consciousness of our own people about our own continent, our own history, our own rich culture and traditions," Mr Pahad said.

Malian Ambassador to South Africa Sinaly Coulibaly said that while African history and culture were often associated with an oral tradition, the Timbuktu documents were a reminder that African knowledge comprises both a written and oral tradition.

"It is important to protect the content of this archive, which is an important record of the continent."

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