Month: February 2015

The Meaning Of Timbuktu

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The meaning of timbuktu

Made possible by the Tombouctou Manuscript Project of University of Cape Town, South Africa

Edited by Shamil Jeppie and Souleymane Bachir Diagne Published by HSRC Press Private Bag X9182, Cape Town, 8000 South Africa In Association with CODESRIA Avenue Cheikh Diop, X Canal IV, BP 3304, Dakar, CP 18524 Senegal


We are pleased finally to be able to present this volumes of essays to the reading public in South Africa and elsewhere on the continent.  The essays were, with one exception, all originally read as papers at a conference of the Tombouctou Manuscript Project of University of Cape Town in August 2005.  On that occasion, they were prepared and presented in one of three languages – Arabic, English and French – and we are delighted to give English-language readers the opportunity to now read them all in one volume.  Simultaneous translation was available at the conference, and publication of the papers in all three languages in separate volumes were our original and rather idealistic ambition, but funding for such a publishing project was unfortunately, if understandably, not obtainable; Furthermore, the logistics of editing a single volume has been a sufficient challenge; with the two editors living at great distances from each other, and authors who are spread across three continents, and many of them often away from desk and classroom.  Simultaneity in this case was a most fanciful idea, but it is hoped that now that this collection of essays is in the public realm, the resources will be found to translate the volume into the other languages.  We are confident that we have original essays of value here that deserve to be widely read in South Africa, Africa and beyond.  It is our hope, that in the near future, readers other than those within the normal reach of the market of this press – French and Arabic speakers, if not other regional language – will have the book to in hand.

“The African traditions of scholarship, articulated in the Arabic language, and in African languages written in the Arabic script ( the so-called Ajami)that most of the chapters in this volume address, have to date been studied by a very small group of scholars – Arabists and historians or anthropologist, very largely, of course, trained to research and focus on the western regions of the continent.  Modern scholarly research on this African Islamic tradition of learning has a presence in a few scattered places in Africa, Europe, and the United States of America. While there is a colonial tradition of scholarship particularly focused on translating key text relevant to colonial policy makers, later, ‘scientific’ research about African pre-colonial writing has grown steadily if lethargically since the 1960s.

this world of African scholarship before the appearance of European colonialism is, however, generally not as widely known or incorporated into school or university curricula about Africa as, say, aspects of the continent’s  archaeology or oral tradition. Yet the corpus of materials to study is vast and, excluding North Africa above the Sahara, extends across West African and down to the East African coast and there even exist a small body of material in Cape Town, South Africa. In recent years some intermittent international media attention to these traditions of writing has led to a popular focus on them; but like so much that is pursued by the media there is instant, intense and often sparkling light thrown on the subject, only for it to be soon relegated to make way for the next big scoop.

The written heritage of ‘mysterious Timbuktu’ has attracted this kind of attention from time to time for a short while until ‘the next big thing’ came along. So that desert town has had its 15 minutes of fame.  However, we believe Timbuktu’s recent fame should be kept alive for a bit long among scholars interested in the past of books and libraries; it should remain prominent among those concerned with at least a part of Africa’s last few hundred years of written history.

This collection is a selection of over twenty studies, which combine specialist expertise and accessibility about the extensive institutions of scholarship over part of the Sahara and the Sahel – that region on the edges of the Sahara stretching from the Atlantic Ocean to the Red Sea, also known as Bilad al-Sudan (land of the blacks) since the medieval period.  We also include two essays on the regions beyond, which is by no means comprehensive but merely an indicator of what exists outside  the focus area of this collection.  Altogether, these studies should wet the appetite of any educated reader or student interested in the transmission of  learning and book production.  We do not make any claim to comprehensiveness or definitiveness but cumulatively the essays provide concise introductions that are solidly researched and reliable and offer multiple perspectives on the worlds and meanings of scholarly reading and writing in Timbuktu and beyond.

This is not a collection of essays composed only of the work of scholars from universities outside the regions under study. We have scholars from within the regions who continue to work in, manage or own the libraries under discussion.  We also have scholars whose style of composition still have something of the classical modes of expression still taught in some tutorials and classes in the Sahel.  Even though the book does not contain essays on the aesthetics of the written materials themselves, except one  on aspects of calligraphy, there enough images in the following pages to give an impression of what future research is possible in fields such as West African arts and design, for example.  It was therefore a conscious decision to include a generous selection of images of texts and their context from the regions addressed in this volume.