The manuscripts in Arabic and African languages cover almost every conceivable subject from history and medicine to law and human rights, from astronomy and philosophy to conflict resolution and literature. It’s a Who’s Who of ancient kingdoms. Some are close to a thousand years old, written on paper, tanned gazelle skin, or tree bark, and they provide a rare glimpse into a precolonial African history of intellectual endeavor, historians say.
The manuscripts are threatened by the desert’s harsh environment, by family neglect, and a scarcity of funds for preservation in the world’s fifth poorest country. South Africa has stepped in and later this year will complete construction of a new library and research center a few yards from the high, mud walls and minarets of the Sankoré Mosque which was, 400 years ago, itself a center of learning with 25,000 students and teachers.