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From The Archives

Curtis Abraham

In the fabled city of Timbuktu in Mali, West Africa tradition dies hard. On the city’s outskirts Tuareg nomads in blue attire sit astride their camels. These Saharan nomads make frequent treks into the city to sell their beautifully crafted jewelry and other artifacts to local buyers. Africans here still use the Niger River for their ancient fishing excursions with local canoes. The past is also very prominent in the present. The three great Mosques or madrasas (schools) of Djingareyber, Sankore and Sidi Yahya are a testament in mud architecture of the city’s golden age.

During the 15th and 16th centuries Timbuktu was a fabulously wealthy. The ancient city grew to great riches from its days as a semi-desert, backwater outpost near the northern-most bend of the Niger River in the 10th century to the bustling hub of one of Africa's greatest centers of civilization several centuries later during the Mali and Songhey empires. It was the city’s key role in trans-Saharan trade in gold, ivory, slaves, salt and other goods by Tuareg, Mandé and Fulani merchants, which led to its prosperity.

With wealth came learning, libraries and universities. The city was perhaps the most important center of learning in sub-Saharan Africa during the 15th and 16th centuries where scholars of religion, arts and sciences flourished. Tens of thousands of manuscripts were commissioned and meticulously executed by African academics. However, when the Moroccans invaded in the 1590s academics and most of their writings were banished by the Moroccans. Miraculously, a treasure trove of thousands of manuscripts survived persecution- and is presently lying untouched in trunks or buried deep in the thick mud walls of mosques for generations.

The March 2012 coup in Mali, which was led by Captain Amadou Sanogo, opened a Pandora’s Box in the northern part of the country. In late June 2012, Ansar al Dine Tuareg militants, took control of Timbuktu from their former MNLA Tuareg allies with the aim is of creating an Islamic state across the whole of Mali,, attacked tombs of revered saints and scholars in the ancient city-places of pilgrimage. Ansar al Dine’s strict interpretation of Islam is akined to the Taliban in Afghanistan and the Wahabi of Saudi Arabia where the worshipping of shines (or the wearing of amulets to ward off malevolent spirits) is haram or forbidden.

The rebels used pick-axes and other instruments to knock down the tombs of Sidi Alpha Moya and Sidi Mukhtar. They also destroyed the tomb of Sidi Mahmoud Ben Amar, a UNESCO World Heritage Site (Timbuktu has 16 such sites), by breaking off doors, windows and wooded gates from the grave and burned them and then set fire to the tomb itself. Not long after that they attacked and defaced a 15th century door in the Sidi Yahya Mosque, one of the most famous mosques in Timbuktu, as onlookers sobbed. But the destruction hasn’t stopped there. Islamist fighters then destroyed two tombs at the northern Malian city's famous Djingareyber mosque.

“The rebels are oblivious to the heritage of Timbuktu, as we have just witnessed with the destruction of a number of tombs by the Ansar al-Din,” says Shamil Jeppie, Director of the Tombouctou (Timbuktu) Manuscripts Project of the University of Cape Town, South Africa. “These are the graves of people highly regarded in Timbuktu and the region. Among them are men who were both saintly and scholars. The rebels may next focus on the manuscripts with Sufi content – of which the libraries are filled. It is strange to hope for anybody or group to be illiterate but in this case one hopes that they cannot decipher the materials because of their inadequate literacy in the language or script of the materials. One hopes that they are just not interested in the materials. If they are interested in them then it should be to see that they are cared for.”

But Professor Jeppie was not alone in his condemnation of the destruction of Timbuktu’s cultural heritage.

“I believe this is a tragedy for all of humanity”, lamented Irina Bokova, UNESCO’s Director General at the time.

In 2003, a South Africa-Mali Timbuktu Manuscripts Project was officially launched as a bilateral cooperation agreement between the two governments. Their goal was to research various aspects of writing and reading the handwritten works of Timbuktu –arguably the largest collection of written artifacts in Africa. The project also focused on training young African researchers in preservation, translation and digitalization of the ancient texts for future generations.

In February 2006, “The Project on the Search for Scientific Contents of the Timbuktu Manuscripts” (Le Project dans les contenus scentifique des manuscripts de Timbuktu), an offshoot of the main study, was kick started as a joint collaboration between the University of Cape Town’s Department of Science and Technology (DST), the University of Cape Town and Bamako University in Mali. Their aim is to unlock the scientific secrets of the Timbuktu manuscripts, something which has never been previously attempted.

The South African government's initially funded the project to the tune of an estimated 500,000 South African Rand (about $70,000 at the time). However, since the occupation of Timbuktu by Ansar al Dine, the government of South Africa has remain conspicuously silent about the desecration of it sacred sites.

The expectation is that these fragile reams of paper, some dating back to the 13th century, may yield unexpected surprises not only in the field of astronomy but also in the disciplines of botany, medicine, biology, chemistry, mathematics and climatology.

The main ambition of the researchers is to try and build as complete a picture of the status of science studies and research during the ancient Mali and Songhay empires. Medupe and his colleagues also hope to investigate the extent of the participation and contribution of African astronomers to Medieval Islamic scientific culture.

“Until we thought of this project the common belief among Western scientists was that Africans only began studying and participating in science only recently after the arrival of Europeans in our continent,” says Dr. Thebe Medupe, a South African astrophysicist and a professor at the University of North West in 2012 who was also the projects chief researcher.

He added:

“The fact that we can speak with confidence that sub-Saharan Africans were studying mathematics and astronomy over three hundred years ago is something that was unthinkable during my school days. The common perception was that Black Africans could not think or do science.”

The bulk of the Timbuktu manuscripts are presently housed in what is now the Ahmed Baba Institute of Higher Learning and Islamic Research. While most are in Arabic, some are in indigenous languages such as Songhai and Hausa, written using Arabic script. There are also several volumes of catalogues, and there may be up to 18,000 manuscripts! Entries of the Ahmed Baba library catalogues indicate the existence of 37 manuscripts that deal with the topics of astronomy and astrology. Medupe’s team also discovered 27 such articles in the famous Mamma Haidara Memorial Library. Furthermore, there are also 32 manuscripts on astronomy which have been identified in the libraries of the Al-Furqan foundation in the neighboring Ghana Republic, no studies of the science content of the manuscripts have been done before.

There are also some twenty-five private libraries in and around the city of Timbuktu. However, only eight of these private libraries are open to scholars. And out of that eight it is only the Mama Haidara Memorial Library that has cataloged these ancient texts.

According to Mary Minicka, a member of the preservation team of the South African government’s conservation project in Timbuktu, the condition of the manuscripts varies enormously, with some in a relatively good state, while others are quite brittle and damaged. Climatic and environmental conditions in Timbuktu (and the wider region) are quite extreme with searing heat, bitter cold and high humidity, which combined pose a considerable challenge to the continued survival of the manuscripts. Insects and other vermin that eat paper and other materials, as well as poor quality paper also contribute to the deterioration of the manuscripts. Ironically, one of the rather unexpected elements the conservation team has found in the manuscripts is widespread water damage.

Some key questions that Thebe Medupe and his colleagues are hoping to answer by surveying the thousands of ancient manuscripts include whether or not the astronomers of Timbuktu knew that the Earth was round; did they suspect that they were living in a helio-centric or sun-centered Solar System; did they have any instruments for looking at the heavens; what were their thoughts about meteor showers, comets and eclipses; was their mathematical knowledge sufficient enough to apply it to the study of the sky and did they keep any records of astronomical events?

One particular question the researchers would like to answer is the possibility of a two way flow of scientific ideas between the known centers of medieval Islamic science such as Baghdad and West Africa. Islamic science had its heyday during the period between the eight and the sixteenth centuries AD. During that time, most research in astronomy in the world took place in Islamic Spain, North Africa and the Middle East. The knowledge resulting from this era went on to benefit European scientist during the time of the European Renaissance. The source of this knowledge was a combination of the translated ancient Greek science manuscripts, and original research by Medieval Islamic scientists.

The Timbuktu manuscripts are part of a much larger collection of Islamic writings found throughout much of West Africa. But such documents are not exclusive to West Africa alone. These ancient Islamic texts can be found in areas of sub-Saharan Africa where Islam has had a substantial impact in the life and culture of indigenous African communities it touched. Such places includes Sudan, Mozambique, Tanzania, and Mauritania.

“The most amazing part of this is that the study of Islamic science in the past in Africa may be more widespread than we think,” says Medupe, now a lecturer at the University of Cape Town, South Africa “This is because, these ancient manuscripts are found not only in Timbuktu, but in many older cities in Mali, the neighboring countries of West Africa, an all the way to the east in Sudan and as far south as Tanzania, I believe.”

Medupe and his colleagues continue to be optimistic about finding further astronomical data in the Timbuktu archives. Their optimism is rooted in two know facts. Firstly, until quite recently, the stars dominated many aspects of human life, providing vital information on the time, changing seasons, navigation and complementing spiritual beliefs. This cultural astronomy or archeo-astronomy is what Medupe and his colleagues are hoping to find in the Timbuktu manuscripts.

Secondly, it is well-known that Timbuktu traded extensively with Muslim traders from the Middle East. From the 8th century until the 15th century, Muslim astronomers took over from the ancient Greeks as some of the most accurate and innovative mathematicians and astronomers in the world. Through the book trade and regular interaction between these two cultures it is quite feasible that they shared and discussed observations and discoveries about the stars and shared and developed systems of mathematics.

Unlike the early Christian Church, whose conservatism delayed progress in advances of scientific understanding for many centuries because of teaching attitudes that was still rooted essentially in Plato and Aristotle, early Islamic investigations in astronomy, however, was driven by two main religious practices. The first was the requirement for Muslims to pray facing Mecca, and to orient their mosques in the direction of Mecca. This direction was determined in some cases by using stars to determine latitude and longitude for both Mecca and the locality of interest. Then trigonometric identities were applied to determine angles. Secondly, there was the need to determine proper times for prayers at sunrise, noon, afternoon, sunset and evening.

Practical solutions to both of these problems require the use of trigonometry, a section of mathematics that was not known during the times of Ptolemy, the Greek mathematician and astronomer. Ptolemy did offer solutions to these problems, but his methods were too cumbersome say experts. Muslim astronomers, however, devised easier solutions by inventing the cosine, tangent, co-tangent, secant and cosecant functions of trigonometry. The medieval Islamic astronomers also improved on the astrolabe, an instrument that was used to predict positions of the stars and planets.

“It was the overlap of Europeans and Islam in Spain that provided the conduit for example improved astronomical calculations to diffuse from Islamic culture into Europe - though here again one must realize that a principal driving force within the Middle East, in the case of astronomy, was also astrological in nature.” says Brian Warner, an astronomer at the University of Cape Town and a project member who sadly passed away in May 2023.

According to Petra Schmidl then of the Johann Wolfgang Goethe-Universität Frankfurt, the bulk of manuscripts include texts that discuss calendars and timekeeping. They are often written as poems.

“The interesting thing concerning pre-modern astronomy and astrology as presented in the Timbuktu manuscripts does not concern new discoveries and information not available in other parts of the Islamic realm,” says Schmidl who also collaborated with Medupe and Sharon Hawkes on the documentary, THE ANCIENT ASTRONOMERS OF TIMBUKTU for Dogged Films in Johannesburg.

She added”

“but that the Timbuktu scholars deal with the astronomical and astrological problems and questions, methods and solutions that modern scholarship knows from pre-modern astronomy and astrology in other parts of the Islamic realm.”

So what ancient astronomical data have the researchers discovered so far among the manuscripts?

“The preliminary investigations point to connections with the western part of Muslim north Africa, for example the Maghrib,” says Benno van Dalen formerly of the Institute of Islamic Science in Frankfurt, Germany , and now at the Bavarian Academy of Sciences and Humanities in Munich, Germany who was also a collaborator on the project,

Van Dalen went to say that Western Islamic astronomy, for example from Muslim Spain and the Maghric, is in general quite different from astronomy in the eastern Islamic world. After transmission of eastern works had taken place in the 9th and 10th century, the developments from ca. 1050 onwards were very much independent from those of the east. They included different planetary models (for instance involving ‘trepidation’, a presumed periodical change in the procession of the equinoxes, the obliquity of the ecliptic, and the eccentricity of the solar orbit as seen from the Earth) and also interesting different developments in astronomical instruments.

In manuscript number 3660, a ten-page document titled “Excursion about what is meant by the Travel of the Sun”, the author discusses orbits, division of orbits, seasons, astrological nature of things as well as foods and drinks to be consumed every month. In another document, number 2458, a thirty-one pager called “Illustration of a Poem by Mohammad Bin Ali” the author writes about, among other things, days of the year, planets, lunar mansions, the duration of planets in constellations and source of moonlight. The document titled: “A Book about Knowing the Situations of the Moon in the Mansion” tells of ill fortune and bad fortune lunar mansions, hours and their characteristics. Other manuscripts similarly discuss planets, constellations, orbits, seasons, the moon, sun, etc..

Among the treasure-trove of these ancient texts is document number 3670. This manuscript, written in 1723, is a copy of a commentary by Abul Abbas on a work by Mohammed bin Said bin Yehya bin Ahmed bin Dawud bin Abubaker bin Ya-aza from Suz (probably Morocco).

The researchers are in the dark about further details of the author's life. However, they suspect that he lived or comes from the area near Timbuktu since he mentions Ahmed Baba, the most famous scholar from Timbuktu in the 1500s. The manuscript starts by explaining what astronomy is, and what its uses are. Medupe’s expert Arabic translators give a direct translation of what Abul Abbas thinks Astronomy is:

“…it is also called Science of Arithmetic .Because he who wants to know this science must look at the sky to observe the individual stars and to know their names. It is called Arithmetic, because he who wants to know it must learn Arithmetic.”

Abul Abbas then goes on to list the uses of the science of astronomy as: for guiding people in and off the sea, determining calendars, decorating the sky and determining prayer times. This manuscript, which was used as a teaching manual for students in 1723

“These concepts of astronomy, with the exception of the third and last items, are exactly as they are being taught in classes of general astronomy today,” says Medupe.

What's unusual about this text is that it describes a geocentric or earth-centered model of the universe in 1700s Timbuktu! Its author is writing some 300 years after the Copernican revolution, which placed the sun at the center of our solar system. This is intriguing because it appears that Islamic astronomers, at least in Timbuktu, were not in contact with European astronomers. The manuscript is a testament to the fact that these early notions of the universe (wrong though they are) were being independently developed in sub-Saharan Africa without European influence.

This particular document also includes precise definitions of Islamic calendars, month, leap years etc. Furthermore, the author also gives algorithms on how to determine leap years in an Islamic calendar.

“I was reading Abbul Abbas’s manuscript in Timbuktu, without an astronomical book or the internet for reference,” recalls Medupe, “so I decided to test the accuracy of their algorithm for determining Islamic leap year by implementing it on a FORTRAN program. Indeed the program worked well, and so these people were very knowledgeable about the subject they wrote about.”

The final chapter of Abbas’s text deals with a description of a geocentric model of the universe. This manuscript also contains diagrams of planetary orbits. This manuscript not only illustrates the well-known fact that Islamic astronomy borrowed a lot from ancient Greek astronomy, but it also proves a far less known fact that Africans living below the Sahara were learning these ideas over three hundred years ago.

Another offshoot of the Timbuktu project is the hope that these pioneering investigations and subsequent discoveries will encourage young black students to pursue careers in the sciences. As it stands South Africa's science and math classes regularly fall at the bottom of reputable international studies. Perhaps this could be said of most of sub-Saharan Africa. Medupe, however, sees yet another key reason why young black South Africans are turning their backs on science.

“I still believe that one of the reasons sub-Saharan Africans are under-represented in science is because they do not see themselves in the science books they read,” says Medupe.

The Timbuktu manuscripts were already in peril prior to the arrival of Ansar al Dine.

Some of the texts, which were written on delicate paper, are beginning to disintegrate. Over the centuries, these documents have been subjected to the ravages of temperature fluctuations; relative humidity, dust and grit among other things. The Project had given added urgency to preservation efforts for saving the Timbuktu manuscripts.

“A large part of the focus of our work on the project was to initiate measures that would help to minimize the impact of these environmental factors on the manuscripts,” says Mary Minicka, a member of the conservation team of the South African government conservation project in Timbuktu.

She added:

“For example, surface cleaning of the manuscripts to remove the dust and dirt from the surface of the paper (and the manuscript cover, if there was one); another measure was to make protective boxes for the individual manuscripts to both protect the manuscript from any further physical damage and to isolate it from the extreme environmental conditions of Timbuktu. The extreme conditions in Timbuktu meant that our team had to rethink even fairly standard conservation treatments and interventions in order to ensure that there were no unintended negative consequences for the manuscripts.”

At the time, uncertainty surrounded the fate of the Timbuktu science manuscripts as Ansar al Dine rebels continued their murderous occupation of Timbuktu while many of Mali’s foremost researchers, conservationists and library owners have fled for Bamako, the Mali capital. In 2012, this exodus left a void of skilled and knowledgeable experts who know how to handle the fragile manuscripts. Several private libraries have been locked while portions of the manuscripts (as well as other precious artifacts) had been removed from the libraries and museums and were hidden away in private homes.


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