Having had a rather tiring week I decided to take an hour off this evening and delve into the material I had downloaded from the BBC iPlayer. Thus it was that I came across Aminatta Forna’s fascinating program, The Lost Libraries of Timbuktu.
Why fascinating? Well for a start, while we Brit’s were busy killing each other in the Wars of the Roses, Timbuktu was a thriving Islamic university city with a population of around 100,000, about of quarter of whom were scholars and their families. That is mostly gone now. The Songhai Empire collapsed for a variety of reasons, one of which was economic decline brought about by competition in the gold market from imports from the Americas. War with Morocco was followed by internal religious wars and finally colonization by France. During the collapse, the middle class families of Timbuktu hid their treasures – their books – in safe places. Only now are they finally being made available to scholars again.
The national library of Mali owns some 300,000 manuscripts, only a fraction of which have been translated and studied. The Library of Congress has a small exhibition. Thousands more manuscripts still exist in private collections, or are lost in whatever safe storage location they were buried in.
Most of the manuscripts appear to be either religious or bureaucratic in nature, but some will inevitably be useful in throwing light on the history of West Africa. The Songhai were only the most recent empire to control Timbuktu. Before that was the Mali Empire, and before that the Ghana Empire. That history, however, takes us back only to the time of the Anglo-Saxons. Archaeological remains (described for us in the program by an American scholar who is actually descended from the great explorer, Mungo Park) suggest the existence of a vast civilization along the course of the Niger that was as big, and possibly as old, as those of Mesopotamia.
As you can imagine, I was sat there with story ideas flowing freely through my brain. And the good news is that you can tap that wellspring too. Someone has uploaded the entire thing, in bits, to YouTube. Here are the links:
Apologies for the links to Wikipedia above, but I don’t know enough about West African history to provide more reliable sources. Maybe one of you folks does.