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The Books of Timbuktu

Updated: May 7, 2021

A copyist in Timbuktu from Les Manuscripts de Tombouctu by Jean-Michel Djian

For ages it was deemed impossible to find, requiring either a blistering crossing of the Sahara if coming from the north, or an equally daunting journey through rough rivers and dense forest if coming from the south. Timbuktu, its name derived from the woman, Buktu, the keeper of a strategically located well. Buktu's Well or Timbuktu, became a fabled city of great wealth, forever distant and out of reach there beyond the sands of the great Sahara.

Atlas Catalan, showing Mansa Musa, King of Old Mali holding a golden ball, 1375

The first inklings outside of West Africa of its great empire came in 1325 - 1335 when Mansa Musa (also called Kankan Musa) made his 10-year round trip to Mecca, accompanied by thousands of his courtiers, including 500 who followed behind him, each holding high a golden scepter. One of the richest men to have ever lived, he is known for wrecking the economies of every country he passed through by showering each with gold, gold, gold, gold. Obviously from a family of adventurers, and with a well administered kingdom, he could leave for 10 years and return with his kingdom intact and his throne still his. His predecessor, Abu Bakir, is known in Malian history for sailing across the Atlantic, where he took his fleet up a large river, (the Amazon?). When he did not return, the ship left at the mouth of this river returned to Mali to tell the tale of the disappeared king, which put Mansa Musa on the throne.

But what's a big empire without educated people to run it? In the 14th to 16th centuries during the empires of Old Mali and its successor, Songhai, Timbuktu came into prominence with three universities, the most famous of which is Sankore. Just as in the Europe of the time, the studies revolved around religion, Christianity in Europe and Islam in Africa; however, much of the curriculum in math and sciences came from the same source, the Arabic translations of the learning of the Ancient Greeks and scholars of other places like Persia and Egypt. What the Greeks had known had been lost to the Europeans but reappeared when the Moorish invasion of Spain brought that information back to Europe. At the same time, these texts circulated in West Africa, where scholars must now go to see the original texts of the kind that were once present in Europe. So it is those books and many others that the ever distant Timbuktu is currently famous for.

A page of poetry from a manuscript in Timbuktu

These precious books, covered all kinds of subject matter. While written in Arabic, the Latin of Africa, they were also used to represent local West African languages. In Europe the same thing occurred with Latin letters used to write local languages, like English. The famous books have long been seen as treasures. When Timbuktu fell to the Sultan of Morocco in 1591, his troops raided the libraries, including the personal library of the greatest scholar in the Islamic world at that time, Ahmad Baba, whose personal library contained 2,000 books. The French who followed several hundred years later carried off many of these manuscripts as well, causing the local people to hide caches of books in the desert sands. This evasive action led to the current problem of the loss of many of these beautiful texts.

As a teacher, I have a great love of books and learning, so the weathered and crumbled condition of these books saddens me. Yet, as an artist, I have an appreciation for the decayed beauty their tragic fate has produced. I appreciate the beauty of the script, which I do not read but still admire its form and grace. I am unusually fascinated by the ragged, insect-eaten edges, the curious wavy, brown stains on the heavy paper, and the designs on the pages of poetry. There are hand-written commentaries by the most notable teachers at Sankore, who did not publish in academic journals like profs do today. They wrote their comments about the text in the margins of the text itself, so students had immediate access to this additional information, as you can see below.

Text with commentary by the master teachers at Sankore in Timbuktu.

One may wonder about this treatment of books, and the students' access to these texts. I can only imagine that some of them may have disappeared, a common problem in Europe at the time, leading to the Chained Libraries. We can see below a sample from France, where a key cathedral college, the Sorbonne, was founded around 1253 by Robert Sorbonne, the priest confessor of King Louis IX. Sixteen poor students wanted to study theology, so the king ordered the school be founded. It is now one of the colleges of the University of Paris, just as Sankore itself is still a university, though also a mosque focused on religious teachings.

A medieval chained book and one with text crossed out perhaps by a student who did not agree with the theology presented?

So the books have their individual fates. Recently in Timbuktu the UNESCO-built Ahmad Baba Center, named for that great scholar and dedicated to preserving the books, was sacked and burned by the Jihadies who invaded Timbuktu in 2012. However, the crafty librarians saved 95% of the books. Their story is told in the book whose title was inspired by their daring,The Bad-ass Librarians of Timbuktu by Joshua Hammer. Of course there are still thousands of hidden caches of books in the desert, where one hopes the insects will only do their damage in the most artful fashion.

A case of books from a family library in Timbuktu

What bad-ass thing would you do to save a beautiful book? Log in and tell us about it.

For information on the books of Timbuktu before the Jihadi Invasion, see BBC documentary, The Lost Libraries of Timbuktu

My gratitude for the information and photos from Jean-Michel Djian's wonderful book, Les Manuscrits de Tombouctu, published by J.C. Lattes and available in French on

Information on books in medieval Europe from La Passion du Livre au Moyen Age by Sophie Casstagnes-Brouquet, also available in French on

For more source material on the middle ages in Africa, there is Francis Xavier Aymer Favell's Le rhinoceros d'or (The Golden Rhinoceros), also in French

Photo of Atlas Catalan from public domain sources. Other photos used in accordance with Fair Use Policy.

For more on Marjorie Vernelle, see the author page at

She also has an engaging art history blog that talks of painting and wine on

© Marjorie Vernelle 2019

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