Travelling the African Ink Road: Legacy of Timbuktu and Wonders of the Written Word Exhibit

One morning my wife and I were talking.  I pronounced the name of a business partner manufacturing tie-dyed clothing I am selling from Mali.  Her name is Fatima Bouarė.  My wife and I got into a debate about how in Nigeria a name spelled Bohari is the same as the name spelled Bouarė in Mali.  The difference is kind of like two people named Smith and Smyth.  We talked about how that shows Nigeria and Mali are more closely related than people realize.  The biggest difference is one was colonized by French speaking people and the other was colonized by English speaking people.

While we were talking I recalled a program I attended at the Library of Congress in 2005.  It was entitled “The Legacy of Timbuktu: Written Wonders of the World.” and was conducted by a woman named Marieta Harper.

I met Marieta on the elevator in the Madison Building of the LOC. She noticed my tie-dyed clothing and told me about the program. I followed her to the auditorium where the program was taking place.

Taking a seat in the front row, as no one else was there, Marieta went to complete preparations for the program. It wasn’t long before she started.

“Grains come from the South, salt comes from the North, but Knowledge and beautiful things come from Timbuktu.”

That was a proverb from Mali she opened up with.  Since then I have also read it quoted:

Salt comes from the north, gold from the south and silver from the country of the white men, but the word of God and the treasures of wisdom are only to be found in Timbuctoo

Still another version says:

“GOLD comes from the South, salt comes from the North, but knowledge and beautiful things come from Timbuktu.”

She talked about how there was at one time what is described as “The African Ink Road.”  It spread from as far North as Timbuktu to as far south as Kaduna in Nigeria. She explained how the Library of Congress has microfilmed manuscripts for an exhibit. (see the Ancient Manuscripts from the Desert Libraries of Timbuktu, Library of Congress for more info.)

She then introduced a man named Abdel Kader Haidara.  He was the Curator of Manuscripts from the International Museum of Muslim Culture in Jackson Mississippi.  It comes under the auspices of the Islamic Museum Society.  He explained how the manuscripts were going to be on an America-wide tour planned to begin at the DuSable Museum in 2006.

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Cheikh Kadir went on to describe how 700 years of literate culture is documented in Timbuktu and then he described the proof.

In Timbuktu, scholars wrote their own books.  They had a socioeconomic model based on scholarship which made the buying and selling of books more profitable than gold and slaves.  In addition to using Arabic and Hebrew, there were scripts written in alphabets named Tifenah (sp?) and Taneshek (sp?).  There are one million objects  preserved in Mali alone. An additional 20 million are throughout Africa with the largest concentration in Sokoto, Nigeria.  At present there are no practicing book artists in Timbuktu, but the cultural memory of artisans is alive.

The Age of Scholarship

Cheikh Kadir expressed the importance of developing socioeconomic activities intended to create wealth around scholarship.  There are collections which are in extreme danger because of the conditions under which they are being kept.  Although they know scholarship was a major source of income during the age of scholarship, it is still unknown the full extent of the manuscripts which have been preserved.  At one time there were 120 libraries with manuscripts in Timbuktu and surrounding areas.  Some of the libraries can be visited, but owners are wary of strangers absconding with their manuscripts and don’t encourage scholars.

Libraries in Paris, London and other cities have copies of a few scripts.  Some families buried libraries of manuscripts underground, in the desert and in caves, many of which are still hidden.

A brief eye view of manuscripts covered include:
Koran’s, Aladith, fitar, sufism, language, grammar, stories, translations, travels (by businessmen & researchers), psychology, chemistry, biology, astrology, agriculture, sociology, study of animals, mineralogy, geology, medicine, pharmacy, ophthalmology, rights of women, children, orphans, workers, marriage partners, human rights, conflict resolution, justice, equality, interpersonal relations, morality, politics, how economics develop, floods & earthquakes.  Their history talks about history of the world and humanity in general.

Lastly, he said that it would help to translate the documents.

Below are a few websites documenting the Timbuktu manuscripts further.

The Legacy of Timbuktu:Wonders of the Written Word Exhibit

Islam In the Heart Of Dixie

Ancient Manuscripts from the Desert Libraries of Timbuktu, Library of Congress

Islamic Manuscripts from Mali: Timbuktu-an Islamic Cultural Center

Trekking to Timbuktu: Timbuktu’s Golden Age of Scholarship — Teacher Version

Shabeni’s Description of Timbuktu


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