Timbuktu has often been invoked as a symbol of the most distant place on Earth, as a mysterious and exotic, but unreachable, attraction. Historically, it was an important centre of commerce and learning and, in contemporary times, it has become a key symbol of African literary heritage.
Indeed, it has a rich and diverse heritage and a fascinating past. The city and its desert environs are an archive of handwritten texts in Arabic and in African languages in the Arabic script, produced between the 13th and the 20th centuries. The manuscript libraries of Timbuktu are significant repositories of scholarly production in West Africa and the Sahara. Given the large number of manuscript collections it is surprising that Timbuktu as an archive remains largely unknown and under-used. Thus, Timbuktu's manuscript collections deserve close study, and therefore, a significant starting-point for reflecting on Africa's written traditions.
Recognizing its significance as a site of African architecture and of its scholarly past, UNESCO declared Timbuktu a World Heritage Site in 1990. In 2003, a South Africa-Mali Timbuktu Manuscripts Project was officially launched, and a major achievement of this project was the new library-archive building, which was inaugurated in Timbuktu in January 2009.
The Tombouctou Manuscripts Project at the University of Cape Town is dedicated to research various aspects of writing and reading the handwritten works of Timbuktu and beyond. Training young researchers is an integral part of its work. The project was conceptualized in 2002, was officially established in 2003 to research and document manuscript tradition in Africa.
Over the past seven years a team has been involved in the study of manuscript tradition in Africa, including manuscript translation, digitalization and historical studies of book and library traditions. Although the Tombouctou Manuscripts Project incorporates researchers from Africa and beyond, who are involved in studies of book history and manuscript traditions of Africa, the core team is based at South Africa's University of Cape Town. The team is led by Shamil Jeppie and currently consists of four graduate students, and although the Project focuses on manuscript traditions throughout the African continent, it was initially inspired by the written heritage of Timbuktu. Hence, researchers are involved in the ongoing translation of materials from the Ahmed Baba and Mamma Haidara collections. Thus far, due to...