The Legacy of Timbuktu: Wonders of the Written Word

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In the last millennium an important global legacy was uncovered—the literate culture of AFRICA—symbolized in the extraordinary richness of historical manuscripts that still survive. These ancient documents reveal that a sophisticated literate culture flourished in the city of Timbuktu on the edge of the Sahara Desert beginning in the 13th century and lasting more than 700 years. A crossroads of international caravan commerce, including the book trade, Timbuktu was also a celebrated center of learning, attracting scholars, and thousands of students and teachers from many countries and backgrounds.

The International Museum of Muslim Cultures in partnership with the Mamma Haidara Memorial Library in Timbuktu has curated an exhibit of this glorious age and its legacy to America through the tragic events of the slave trade as it presents The Legacy of Timbuktu: Wonders of the Written Word Exhibition.

Books were not only brought into Timbuktu, but local scholars wrote their own works, and artisans scribed, decorated and bound them in a sophisticated local book production industry tied to the global Islamic knowledge industry—activities that culminated in a complex and highly viable socio-economic model. Leo Africanus, celebrated medieval historian, wrote “the buying and selling of books were more profitable than any other commerce in the city of Timbuktu”. The feature attraction will be 25 of the estimated one million manuscripts recently re-rediscovered in the West African country of Mali. Bound in leather, they contain finely articulated calligraphy and colorful, even gilded, illustrations and cover a wide variety of subjects.

These manuscripts are coming to the IMMC from the Mamma Haidara Memorial Library in Timbuktu in coordination with Cheikh Abdelkader Haidara, the heir and director of the library in Mali. The Haidara Library is the largest of 22 private libraries in the city of Timbuktu and holds over 9,000 ancient manuscripts and many printed books dating from before the 16th century. This is only the second time these manuscripts have left the continent of Africa and been on display in the US, with the first time being at the U.S. Library of Congress in 2003 to a limited audience. This is the first time the manuscripts will be on display to a national audience through a traveling exhibition.

In addition to the rare African manuscripts, experience the rich intellectual and cultural blend of African and Islamic heritage shared through videos and audio production, interactive media, models, artifact displays, and hands-on activities. Learn about Islam’s spread into West Africa; life in a leather tent of Saharan caravan traders; the rise and decline of the great empires of West Africa and their leaders; the legendary Sankore Mosque and University; methods and tools of manuscript production; French colonialism in Mali and the slave trade; life in Mali today and the work of generational artisans; sketches from the lives of African Muslims enslaved in America. The participatory laboratory will feature Malian musical instruments and demonstrate the link between this indigenous music and American blues.

Special thanks to the generous organizations and individuals who gave of their time, resources and expertise in creating this exhibition including but not limited to CommArts, Sound Vision, Dr. Stephanie Diakite, Dr. Abdellatif Attafi, Dr. Allan D. Austin, Dr. Douglas B. Chambers, Dr. Sylviane A. Diouf, Dr. John Hunwick, Dr. Ali A. Mazrui, Dr. Aminah B. McCloud, Dr. Sulayman Nyang, Dr. Hakim Abdullah Quick, Dr. Steve Rosenberg, Audrey Shabas, Dr. Steve G. Smith, Tariq Beard and Habeebah Muhammad.

 

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