Edo Smitshuijzen


a treasure chamber of Arabic manuscripts

The city Timbuktu in the African state of Mali stands for the end of the civilized world. Much of that is still true, the city is difficult to reach and consist merely of a large collection of low mud houses along narrow trash-choked streets. The UNESCO designated it an endangered site because the surrounding sand dunes could at any time swallow up the whole city.

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It is difficult to imagine that this city was an important trading post and the center of intellectual activity. The local University of Sankore had 25.000 scholars at it height. The amount of bound manuscripts produced gave the city the name of the Alexandria of Africa. All manuscripts were in the Arabic script, some are masterpieces of Arabic calligraphy. All these treasures have long been hidden and kept under very bad circumstances. Conditions have changed now with the help of American and European funds the huge collection is being cataloged, digitized and preserved under better conditions.

Once great cities never got a second chance; maybe Timbuktu will be the exception. Tourists use to come here only to buy a t-shirt and collect a stamp in their passport as trophies of having being on the world's edge. The city is now building accommodation to receive researchers from all over the world.

for the audiovisual story, visit the New York Times world online