Thousands of Timbuktu’s ancient manuscripts digitised for virtual gallery

For the very first time, tens of thousands of Timbuktu’s ancient manuscripts have been captured in a virtual gallery called ‘Mali Magic’. Collectively the documents represent centuries of African and Islamic scholarship, as well as remarkable manuscript artwork.

Central to the heritage of Mali, they represent the long legacy of written knowledge and academic excellence in Africa,” explained Dr Abdel Kader Haidara, a Malian librarian. Some of the manuscripts even date back to the eleventh century, predating the spread of Islam throughout West Africa in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.

For hundreds of years, Timbuktu was one of Africa’s greatest cultural centres. This is reflected in the range of topics covered by the renowned manuscripts, from early Qurans and mathematical equations to astrological charts.

In collaboration with Google, the new virtual collection showcases Mali’s extraordinary cultural history up until the present day. The digitised 40,000 manuscript pages, originally written in medieval Arabic, have been translated into English, French, Spanish and modern Arabic.

Making a digital record and copy of the manuscripts is very important and for the first time we’re bringing the fruits of our labour after so many years,” said Chance Coughenour, Google Program Manager and Digital Archaeologist.

It also features images of photographic work, painting, textiles, and architecture. One photograph shows the vibrant masked dance of the Dogon ethnic group, whilst another portrays a group of builders plastering the Great Mosque of Djenné, a Unesco world heritage site.

The project began seven years ago, when Dr Haidara invited representatives from Google to visit Mali and study the ancient manuscripts. The librarian, together with his colleagues, had rescued the manuscripts from certain destruction only a few years prior. After Islamic extremists destroyed numerous heritage sites in Mali in 2012, Dr Haidara’s group managed to smuggle 400,000 pages of the priceless manuscripts out of occupied Timbuktu.

Through conservation, cataloguing, and digitisation, ‘Mali Magic’ has ensured that these important historical documents are preserved for future generations to come. Reflecting on their significance, Dr Haidara remarked “in the dark night of our present existence, manuscripts are the searchlights that probe our past.”

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