Timbuktu’s Cultural Heritage: How Digitalization is Preserving It

Timbuktu, an ancient city in the geographic center of Mali, was founded around 1100 CE as a seasonal camp by Tuareg nomads. Its location at the meeting point of desert and water made it an ideal trading center. The old city became part of the Mali empire in the late 13th or early 14th century.

World renowned historians acknowledge the fact that the Empire of Knowledge, Timbuktu, attracted hundreds of Black African students in the 16th century who debated the latest theories in science, mathematics, and medicine.

Timbuktu was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1988. In reaction to armed strife in the region, the city was listed to the UNESCO List of World Heritage in Danger in 2012.

Manuscripts from Timbuktu

Manuscripts like these have been one of Africa’s best-kept secrets for generations. Western explorers, some dressed as Muslim pilgrims, who travelled to Timbuktu in the early 1800s made no mention of them. A few were taken to museums and libraries in Paris, but for the most part, the conquerors left the desert empty-handed. Even most Malians were unaware of the texts.


Timbuktu: West Africa’s Empire of Knowledge | Dr. Abdullah Hakim Quick


The presence of around 355,000 ancient Timbuktu writings has now been extended. The majority of the historic texts are from the fourteenth to seventeenth centuries and include lost medical and farming knowledge. Not all of the manuscripts are in Arabic, according to archivists. Ajami, an Arabic script derived from the African languages of Fulani, Swahili, Wolof, Soninke, Songhai, Tamasheq, and Hausa, accounts for 7% of the total.

Men like South African President Thabo Mbeki and a librarian Dr Abdel Kader Haidara should be credited for their early support for the manuscripts that are now available. Mr Mbeki chose the Ahmad Baba Center for Documentation as the focal point of a significant push to preserve Timbuktu manuscripts and train Malians in the contemporary art of archival science during a visit to Mali in 2000. Kader Haidara (one of the owners of Timbuktu’s largest private manuscript collections) and others will be remembered for their heroic deeds.

The Internet Archive

Not long ago, the American technology giant, Google started a collaboration with local historians by digitizing contemporary art, cultural and historic sites about Mali. The project is now available on Google Art & Culture (GAC) for global use.

The digital library, dubbed Mali Magic, comprises over 40,000 elements, including digitized Timbuktu’s manuscript pages, street view captures of nine cultural sites, and a 3D model and guided tour of the Djenne Mosqué, the world’s biggest adobe structure, which was built in the 13th century.

First published on Susa Africa, 18th of March 2022.


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