Project Digitizes Works From the Golden Age of Timbuktu

By John Noble Wilford

May 20, 2008

From Timbuktu to here, to reverse the expression, the written words of the legendary African oasis are being delivered by electronic caravan. A lode of books and manuscripts, some only recently rescued from decay, is being digitized for the Internet and distributed to scholars worldwide.

A legal opinion on the rules for buying and selling goods.

A legal opinion on the rules for buying and selling goods.

A map.

A map.

These are works of law and history, science and medicine, poetry and theology, relics of Timbuktu’s golden age as a crossroads in Mali for trade in gold, salt and slaves along the southern edge of the Sahara. If the name is now a synonym for mysterious remoteness, the literature attests to Timbuktu’s earlier role as a vibrant intellectual center.

In recent years, thousands of these leather-bound books and fragile manuscripts have been recovered from family archives, private libraries and storerooms. The South African government is financing construction of a library in Timbuktu to house more than 30,000 of the books. Other gifts support renovations of family libraries and projects for preserving, translating and interpreting the documents.

Now, the first five of the rare manuscripts from private libraries have been digitized and made available online ( to scholars and students. At least 300 are expected to be available online by the end of the year.

The project to collect the digital manuscripts is being organized by Aluka, an international nonprofit company devoted to bringing knowledge from and about Africa to the scholarly world.


“The manuscripts of Timbuktu add great depth to our understanding of Africa’s diverse history and civilizations,” said Rahim S. Rajan, the collection development manager at Aluka.

Complete Story at New York Times

Rahim S. Rajan

Rahim S. Rajan, an alumnus of The Institute of Ismaili Studies’ Graduate Programme in Islamic Studies and Humanities, gave a detailed overview and demonstration of the Aluka initiative on 6th June to IIS faculty, staff and students.

Overview of Aluka Initiative at the Institute of Ismaili Studies

Author: ismailimail

Independent, civil society media featuring Ismaili Muslim community, inter and intra faith endeavors, achievements and humanitarian works.

One thought

  1. Relevant quotes of Aga Khan IV:

    “For century after century, the Arabs, the Persians, the Turks and many other Islamic societies achieved powerful leadership roles in the world—not only politically and economically but also intellectually. Some ill-informed historians and biased commentators have tried to argue that these successes were essentially produced by military power, but this view is profoundly incorrect. The fundamental reason for the pre-eminence of Islamic civilizations lay neither in accidents of history nor in acts of war, but rather in their ability to discover new knowledge, to make it their own, and to build constructively upon it. They became the Knowledge Societies of their time.”(“(Aga Khan IV, 2nd December 2006, AKU, Karachi, Pakistan)

    “What does it (the West) know about the Islamic world? Is anything taught in secondary education? Does anybody know the names of the great philosophers, the scientists, the great theologians? Do they even know the names of the great civilizations?”(Aga Khan IV, Interview, 2nd Feb. 2002)

    “The faith of a billion people is not part of the general education process in the West – ignored by school and college curricula in history, the sciences, philosophy and geography”(Aga Khan IV, Speech, 2002)

    “The basic problem is the enormous lack of knowledge of the Islamic world in the general world-culture. It’s a rather remarkable thing and a very sad thing to me, that over a billion people, their 1400 year history, of civilizations, are simply not part of general education in the general Western world. It’s a remarkable knowledge gap”(Aga Khan IV, Interview, 2002)

    “The Muslim world, once a remarkable bastion of scientific and humanist knowledge, a rich and self-confident cradle of culture and art, has never forgotten its past.The great Muslim philosopher al-Kindi wrote eleven hundred years ago, “No one is diminished by the truth, rather does the truth ennobles all”. That is no less true today”(Aga Khan IV, Speech,1996, Providence, Rhode Island, U.S.A.)

    “From the seventh century to the thirteenth century, the Muslim civilizations dominated world culture, accepting, adopting, using and preserving all preceding study of mathematics, philosophy, medicine and astronomy, among other areas of learning. The Islamic field of thought and knowledge included and added to much of the information on which all civilisations are founded. And yet this fact is seldom acknowledged today, be it in the West or in the Muslim world, and this amnesia has left a six hundred year gap in the history of human thought”(Aga Khan IV, Brown University, Providence, Rhode Island, USA, 1996)

    Above are 6 of 72 excerpts and quotes from:


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