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The covert rescue of thousands of historic manuscripts from Mali’s Timbuktu during the city’s violent take-over by Islamic fighters last year has made the texts available for the recovery of lost medical and farming knowledge, say researchers.

The roughly 300,000 manuscripts, written between the fourteenth and seventeenth centuries, form one of the world’s largest collections of Islamic scholarship, according to Dmitry Bondarev of the Centre for the Study of Manuscript Cultures at the University of Hamburg.

“The crisis that threatened the manuscripts has convinced people of the need to conserve them through digitalisation and research.”

Alfadoulou Abdoulahi, ABI

Yet the content of the manuscripts remains largely unknown, says Bondarev, because most were kept for centuries in private collections in Timbuktu, a remote city on the edge of the Sahara desert.

Colonisation also severed traditional routes of passing on knowledge from the manuscripts, written in Arabic script that was not taught under French rule, says Alfadoulou Abdoulahi, a researcher with the Ahmed Baba Institute of Higher Learning and Islamic Research (ABI) in Mali.

“French colonisation led to a rupture in the transmission of knowledge,” he says. “Malians don’t know much about the manuscripts, aside from the librarians responsible for the collections — and even they haven’t studied them because the focus has been to gather the manuscripts that were in private collections.”

During the take-over of Timbuktu last year, the city’s librarians moved the manuscripts to Mali’s capital Bamako in a covert operation to prevent them from being damaged. Most of the collection was saved, though around 4,000 of the manuscripts were lost during fires in two libraries, explains Abdoulahi.

While the loss was “agonising”, it has also reinvigorated efforts to study the manuscripts, says Abdoulahi, who has digitised around 45,000 of the manuscripts with the ABI since 2000.

“The crisis that threatened the manuscripts has convinced people of the need to conserve them through digitalisation and research,” he says. “This is the only way of insuring the knowledge contained in the manuscripts.”

Though the documents are now more accessible to researchers in Bamako, the change of climate from Mali’s arid north to the humid south has posed a new threat to their survival, adds Bondarev, who is leading a German-funded project to improve conservation conditions.

Proper conservation is the first step to conducting further study of the manuscripts, which could open up fields of scientific inquiry based on the documented medicinal uses of local plants and traditional prophylaxis for malaria, says Bondarev.

Timbuktu’s ancient scholars also focused on agricultural productivity, recording traditional methods of increasing yields of local crops such as rice in the manuscripts.

“These works on agriculture could be used as a counterpoint to the modern exploitation of African soil with imported farming techniques,” says Bondarev. “But we’ll have to wait until someone starts digging into those manuscripts in search of agricultural knowledge.”

For Abdoulahi, the ultimate value of the manuscripts is in defining Africa’s place in the history of science.

“The manuscripts also have an identity-affirming value,” he says. “Africa has often been considered a continent of solely oral traditions but we have a rich history of scientific research. It might not be well known but it’s all there.”