LONDON: Google has completed the mammoth project to digitize 40,000 Malian manuscripts smuggled from Timbuktu, preserving historical documents and making their knowledge available to the public.
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 a center of scholarship, culture and Islamic thought, now faces a continuing threat from violent insurgents.
The city housed 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 parchments, from Italian paper to goatskin, sheepskin and even fish. Sign of the central role of the country in the gold trade, some are decorated with gold leaf.
With the completion of the nine-year digital project, the manuscripts have been uploaded to the Mali Magic website and can be viewed by anyone.
Timbuktu was briefly held by insurgents in 2016, and extremists have posed a constant threat to Mali’s cultural heritage since their terrorist campaign began.
An archaeological emergency was declared by the International Council of Museums in 2016 after reports that large 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.
The librarians of Timbuktu were helped by Google to digitize the texts once the city was secured and they were returned there.
Only a few hundred of the tens of thousands of texts were lost in a fire started by the insurgents, according to Abdel Kader Haidara, the librarian behind the smuggling operation.
“At the center of Mali’s legacy, they represent the long legacy of written knowledge and academic excellence in Africa, and have the potential to inspire global learning from past actions to address today’s challenges. today,” he said.
“They say that the whole history of Africa is oral. Here we have over 400,000 manuscripts written by African hands alone. It’s a real Renaissance.
Chance Coughenour, program manager and digital archaeologist at Google Arts and Culture, told The Times, “We are honored to support our partners with technology to make their work accessible to people around the world.”
Al-Qaeda-aligned Islamists have been waging 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.