The Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC)

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"Salt comes from the north, gold from the south, but the word of God and the treasures of wisdom are only to be found in Timbuktu." 15th-century Malian proverb

In a joint project between South Africa and Mali, a library to preserve more than 200 000 Arabic and West African manuscripts dating from the 13th to the 19th centuries is currently under construction. It is the first official cultural project of the New Partnership for Africa's Development (Nepad), the socio-economic development plan of the African Union, and when the library is built, the cultural role of Timbuktu will be revived, as it becomes the safehaven for the treasured manuscripts. The manuscripts prove that Africa had a rich legacy of written history, long before western colonisers set foot on the continent.

This volume, authored by leading international scholars, begins to sketch the 'meaning' of Timbuktu within the context of the intellectual history of West Africa, in particular, and of the African continent, in general. The book covers four broad areas: Part I provides an introduction to the region; outlines what archaeology can tell us of its history, examines the paper and various calligraphic styles used in the manuscripts; and explains how ancient institutions of scholarship functioned. Part II begins to analyse what the manuscripts can tell us of African history. Part III offers insight into the lives and works of just a few of the many scholars who achieved renown in the region and beyond. Part IV provides a glimpse into Timbuktu's libraries and private collections. Part V looks at the written legacy of the eastern half of Africa, which like that of the western region, is often ignored.

A fascinating read for anyone who wishes to gain an understanding of the aura of mystique and legend that surrounds Timbuktu. The Meanings of Timbuktu strives to contextualize and clarify the importance of efforts to preserve Timbuktu's manuscripts for Mali, for Africa and for the intellectual world.

Open Access

Product information

Format : 275mm x 210mm (Hard Cover)
Pages : 416
ISBN 10 : 0-7969-2204-7
ISBN 13 : 978-07969-2204-5
Publish Year : 2008
Rights : World Rights

Contents Include

Timeline of important dates in Timbuktu history
Map of North and West Africa


  1. Re/discovering Timbuktu
    Shamil Jeppie
  2. Toward an intellectual history of West Africa: the meaning of Timbuktu
    Souleymane Bachir Diagne

Part I: An introduction to the Timbuktu region

  1. Before Timbuktu: cities of the elder world
    Roderick J McIntosh
  2. Paper in Soudanic Africa
    Jonathan M Bloom
  3. Arabic calligraphy in West Africa
    Sheila S Blair
  4. Timbuktu and Walata: lineages and higher education
    Timothy Cleaveland

Part II: Arabic literature as a source of African history

  1. Intellectual innovation and reinvention of the Sahel: the seventeenth-century Timbuktu chronicles
    Paulo F de Moraes Farias
  2. Ajami in Africa: the use of Arabic script in the transcription of African languages
    Moulaye Hassane
  3. Ajami literature and the study of the Sokoto Caliphate
    Hamid Boboyyi
  4. The book in the Sokoto Caliphate
    Murray Last
  5. Muslim women scholars in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries: Morocco to Nigeria
    Beverly B Mack
  6. The Tombouctou Manuscript Project: social history approaches
    Aslam Farouk-Alli & Shaheed Mathee

Part III: Scholars of Timbuktu

  1. The life of Shaykh Sidi al-Mukhtar al-Kunti
    Yahya Ould el-Bara
  2. The works of Shaykh Sidi al-Mukhtar al-Kunti
    Mahamane Mahamoudou
  3. A man of letters in Timbuktu: al-Shaykh Sdi Muhammad al-Kunti
    Abdel Wedoud Ould Cheikh
  4. Abul Khayr al-Arawani, great scholar and pious saint
    Mohamed Diagayet

Part IV: The Timbuktu Libraries

  1. The state of manuscripts in Mali and efforts to preserve them
    Abdelkader Mamma Haidara
  2. The private libraries of Timbuktu
    Ismal Diadi Haidara & Haoua Taore
  3. Shaykh Baghayogho al-Wangari and the Wangari Library in Timbuktu
    Mukhtar bin Yahya al-Wangari
  4. The Ahmed Baba Institute of Advanced Islamic Studies and Research
    Sidi Mohammed Ould Youbba
  5. The Arabic Literature of Africa Project
    John Hunwick
  6. The West African Arabic manuscript database
    Charles C Stewart

Part V: Beyond Timbuktu

  1. Arabic literature in the eastern half of Africa
    Sean OFahey
  2. Textual sources on an Islamic African past: Arabic material in Zanzibars National Archive
    Anne K Bang

Dr Shamil Jeppie is a senior lecturer in the Department of Historical Studies at the University of Cape Town (UCT). A member of the Advisory Board of the Centre for Popular Memory (CPM) at UCT, he serves on the steering committee of SEPHIS, the South-South Exchange Programme for Research on the History of Development.

Souleymane Bachir Diagne is Professor of French and Philosophy at Columbia University, New York. Formerly the vice-dean of the College of Humanities Cheikh Anta Diop University in Dakar, Senegal, he is also a former special advisor to the President of Senegal. He is currently Chair of the Scientific Committee of CODESRIA (Council for the Development of Social Science Research) and a member of the UNESCO African Scientific Committee on Higher Education.

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