LONDON: Google has finished the mammoth project of digitizing 40,000 Malian manuscripts smuggled to safety from Timbuktu, preserving the historic documents and making their knowledge publicly available.
The priceless manuscripts date back to the 11th century and were rescued after Islamist militant groups took control of large areas of northern Mali in 2012.
Timbuktu, once was a center of academia, culture and Islamic thought, now faces a continuing threat from violent insurgents.
The city hosted a library with contacts across the Middle East and the Mediterranean, with texts covering mathematics, medicine, astronomy and Islamic anti-war polemics, as well as scripts written in Hebrew.
The manuscripts are written on a range of parchment, from Italian paper to goat, sheep and even fish skin. In a sign of the country’s central role in the gold trade, some are adorned with gold leaf.
With the completion of the nine-year digital project, the manuscripts have been uploaded to the website Mali Magic and can be viewed by anyone.
Timbuktu was briefly held by insurgents in 2016, and the extremists have posed a constant threat to Mali’s cultural heritage since the onset of their terrorist campaign.
An archaeological emergency was declared by the International Council of Museums in 2016 after reports that vast quantities of Malian treasures, including manuscripts, terracotta statues from the Niger valley and jewelry, were being looted by jihadists and sold on the black market.
Librarians in Timbuktu were assisted by Google to digitize the texts once the city was made safe and they were returned there.
Just a few hundred of the tens of thousands of texts were lost to a fire started by the insurgents, according to Abdel Kader Haidara, the librarian behind the smuggling operation.
“Central to the heritage of Mali, they represent the long legacy of written knowledge and academic excellence in Africa, and hold potential to inspire global learning from the actions of the past in confronting modern-day issues,” he said.
“It’s been said that all the history of Africa is oral. We have more than 400,000 manuscripts here written uniquely by the hands of Africans. It’s a true Renaissance.”
Chance Coughenour, program manager and digital archaeologist at Google Arts and Culture, told The Times: “We are honored to support our partners with the technology to make their work accessible to people all over the world.”
Islamists aligned with Al-Qaeda have fought a bloody insurgency in Mali and the surrounding region for years. Thousands of people have died and hundreds of thousands have been displaced during the conflict.
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