Mali has recently been in the news for its decision to oust French troops from its territory. The French were originally summoned to prevent jihadists from taking control over Africa’s eighth-largest country nearly a decade ago. In the midst of this raging battle, thousands of manuscripts were smuggled to safety to escape the wrath of the terrorist groups that are renowned for their all-out assault on historical, social, and cultural artifacts and knowledge. Called Mali Magic , these Mali manuscripts have been collated and virtually uploaded by Google, and groups of domestic and international partners, as part of Google’s Art and Culture initiative, along with SAVAMA-DCI.
Jihadists who entered Timbuktu in 2012 destroyed ancient Mali manuscripts in a library. ( Mali Magic / Google Arts & Culture )
The African Renaissance: Mali Manuscripts of a Lost Age
“Central to the heritage of Mali, they represent the long legacy of written knowledge and academic excellence in Africa, and hold the potential to inspire global learning from the actions of the past in confronting modern-day issues,” says Dr. Abdel Kader Haidara, a librarian central to the smuggling of many manuscripts. “It’s been said that all the history of Africa is oral,” he continued. “We have more than 400,000 manuscripts here written uniquely by the hands of Africans. It’s a true Renaissance.”
These ancient Mali manuscripts, safely smuggled out of Timbuktu, contain centuries of indigenous African knowledge and scholarship on topics ranging from mathematics, astrological charts, music, to monuments and architecture. There were also Islamic anti-war polemics and scripts written in Hebrew. The manuscripts are written on a “range of parchment,” from Italian paper to goat, sheep, and fish skin, and some were adorned with a gold leaf. Remember that Mali occupied a leading position in medieval gold trade.
The digitizing of the Mali manuscripts began when Dr. Haidara, seen here, contacted Google in 2014. (Mali Magic / Google Arts & Culture )
The restoration of these has been a Herculean effort, and the very act of smuggling out thousands of physical manuscripts was fraught with danger and violence, as jihadists had set fire to two of Timbuktu’s most important libraries in 2012. At this moment, it looked like these precious manuscripts might be lost forever, reports The Times . Over a period of six months, these manuscripts were cautiously smuggled from Timbuktu to the capital, Bamako.
Part of the restoration effort has been to translate the original medieval Arabic into English, French, Spanish, and modern Arabic, in a bid to increase accessibility to the public. Google Program Manager and Digital Archaeologist Chance Coughenour told the BBC, that this was a first. “Making a digital record and copy of the manuscripts is very important and for the first time we’re bringing the fruits of our labor after so many years,” he said.
The entire process involved local stakeholders – traditional Mali leaders, historians, and digital archaeologists, who took over seven years to complete this mammoth restoration effort. Over 40,000 of these pages are now available online for free.
The Holy Quran. (Mali Magic / Google Arts & Culture )
The Mali Empire: The Rise and Fall of a Cultural Center of Art and Learning
Much before even the European Renaissance , Mali was a center of art, culture, learning, and philosophy – the Malian Empire was renowned across Africa, and much of the medieval world, from the Mediterranean to the Middle East. The Europeans, at this point in history, had not made their first voyages to the Americas, and thus did not know about the existence of two whole continents, which themselves had flourishing indigenous civilizations and culture.
History’s most famous travelers – from Ibn Khaldun, to Ibn Battuta to Leo Africanus, have waxed eloquently about the Malian Empire and its voluminous libraries, oozing knowledge, wisdom, craft, and skill. At the peak of its reign, the Mali Empire (1235 – 1670 AD) was the largest in West Africa, with a widespread influence over much of the region, culturally stamping its authority through language, laws, and customs.
The manuscripts are written on a “range of parchment,” from Italian paper to goat, sheep, and fish skin, and some were adorned with a gold leaf. (Mali Magic / Google Arts & Culture )
Mali also became a hub for the propagation and spread of the Islamic faith. There were quality Islamic learning centers, schools, and universities that came about as a result of this interaction with faith, and the establishment of the grandest library in Africa, in modern day Timbuktu. Mali was now celebrated as a multi-lingual and multi-ethnic kingdom, that had arrived in the world.
When Spanish cartographer Abraham Cresques featured legendary Mansa Musa I (1280 – 1337) in the Catalan Atlas, which was a popular resource for European travelers and explorers, the image of Musa wearing a crown made of gold, holding more gold in his hand, naturally sparked curiosity and interest, particularly from Europeans. Unfortunately, Musa’s death paved way for the succession of a series of weak rulers, leading to invasions, civil wars, and popular dissatisfaction with the king. By the late 15th century, the Songhay Empire occupied much of modern-day Mali, and the entire empire was occupied by the expanding Moroccan empire by the 17th century.
Top image: Scanning the Mali manuscripts, which are now under the protection of SAVAMA-DCI, who are digitizing the rescued artifacts. Source: Mali Magic / Google Arts & Culture
By Sahir Pandey