One of the definitions for Timbuktu in the Oxford Dictionary is "any distant or remote place". Featuring the knowledgeable commentary by African scholars, rich reenactments, and an original musical score by Vieux Farka Toure, the essential documentary The Manuscripts of Timbuktu critiques this limited view by firmly demonstrating that Timbuktu was once thriving and home to an advanced civilization. It was a leading cultural, economic, scientific and religious center that made a significant and lasting impact on Africa and the entire world. The film successfully documents that Africa had vibrant scholarly institutions and written cultures long before European intervention. It establishes the importance of preserving the thousands of manuscripts from long ago as an exciting and empowering legacy for Africana scholarship today.
Timbuktu was founded in the 11th century as a major city in the Mali Empire and its prominence lasted until the 18th century. During that epoque, the area was often called, as it is in the film, (Western) Sudan, not to be confused with the contemporary nation located below Egypt. Timbuktu was a hub for the traders of goods from various locales south of the Sahara to the Mediterranean, as well as the Arab and Muslim worlds. Enslaved persons, salt, gold and other precious metals passed through and many cultures converged there.
Religious centers were founded there so that the traveling merchants could practice their faith. These mosques also became sites for the serious study of sacred texts. The relationship between religious institutions and intellectual life mirrored similar developments between the Church and universities in Europe. People learned Arabic to study the Koran and for commerce with Egypt and other lands. To indicate the breadth of connections between Timbuktu and different parts of the medieval world, the 14th century Emperor of the Mali Empire, Kankan Musa had the famous Djingereber Mosque built from the designs of an architect from Moorish Andalusia. This mosque is now designated a World Heritage site as is the Sankore Mosque. The Sankore Mosque also laid the groundwork for Sankore University, which became the most famous university in sub-Saharan Africa.
Literacy among men, women and children was high in Timbuktu. Educational institutions generated what became known as the "Manuscripts of Timbuktu." Among the Manuscripts were prayer books, writings on Mohammed's moral teachings, texts in many languages (Arabic, Greek, Latin), essays, correspondence, poetry, literature, mathematics, astronomy and other sciences.
Emerging out of this milieu of intellectual inquiry was the legendary Ahmed Baba (portrayed by charismatic actor Eriq Ebouaney who played the title role in the feature film, Lumumba) a leading scholar and educator of the 16th and 17th centuries.
When Morocco invaded Timbuktu to advance that country's regional hegemony, Baba was among the intellectuals who were arrested for protesting the occupation. He and his family were deported to Morocco and Baba was placed under house arrest. Yet, so great was his knowledge that he impressed the king and locals went to Baba's home to attend classes. When the king's son ascended to the throne, he released Baba and allowed him to return to Timbuktu.
Upon his return, however, Baba found a Timbuktu in decline. Was the Moroccan occupation the cause of the decline or was it the shift in commerce after Europe "discovers" the Americas? Or both? Previously, Timbuktu was a stopping point in the over land trade, but now much of the trade was being done by sea. Subsequent invasions by Fulanis, the Tuaregs and finally the French, had their deleterious impacts.
Over the centuries, the famous Manuscripts survived. It is important to note that most African scholars were not writing in Arabic, but rather used the Arabic alphabet to phonetically spell the Songhai languages. This is why the translation of the Manuscripts is that much more difficult. Some of them were retained through families, viewed as inheritance and handed down through the generations. Some have been kept in private libraries, although not preserved under the best conditions. The Ahmed Baba Institute in Timbuktu contains 25,000 Manuscripts and has been attempting to transfer these valuable documents to microfilm. International scholars such as Harvard's Henry Louis Gates, Jr. have become advocates for their preservation and South Africa's former President Thabo Mbeki vowed to support the restoration of the Manuscripts and the construction of a building to house them.
Malian historian Salem Ould El Hadj has the last word on their significance, "By preserving these Manuscripts, we preserve our history, not as written by Europe, but a history written by ourselves, for ourselves and for our children."
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