Not until recently did most commentators on African literary history believe that African societies had any form of writing tradition. Since the rediscovery of ancient manuscript collections, with some dating back to at least the 8th century AD, this perception has gradually lost popularity.
Just about 250,000 old manuscripts from the libraries of Timbuktu still survive in present-day Ethiopia. Also, thousands of documents from the medieval Sudanese empire of Makuria, written in at least eight different languages were dug out at the southern Egyptian site of Qasr Ibrim. Thousands of more old manuscripts have equally survived in the West African cities of Chinguetti, Walata, Oudane, Kano, and Agadez.
Upon the real and present dangers posed by fires, insects, and plundering, some one million manuscripts have since survived from the northern edges of Guinea and Ghana to the shores of the Mediterranean. National Geographic even estimates that 700,000 manuscripts have survived in the city of Timbuktu alone.
The Manuscripts in Timbuktu
More than 60 libraries in Timbuktu are still owned and managed by local families and institutions, some of which are collections that survived the turbulence through the region, as well as the ravages from nature. A veritable example is the Ahmed Baba Institute, which was established in 1979, and named after the famous 16th/17th-century scholar, considered the greatest in Africa.
Today, the institute has just about 30,000 manuscripts, which are constantly being studied, cataloged, and preserved, however, at the time of the French colonial administration of Timbuktu (1894-1959), many of the manuscripts were seized and set alight by the invading colonialists. As a result, many families there still refuse to grant access to researchers, fearing a repeat of the French treatment. Other manuscripts were lost due to climatic effects, such as drought, which led to many people burying them and fleeing.
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