When Abdel Kader Haidara was 17 years old, he took a vow. Among the families of Timbuktu with manuscript collections (and the Haidaras had one of the largest), it’s traditional for one family member from each generation to swear publicly that he will protect the library for as long as he lives. The families revere their manuscripts, even honoring them once a year through a holiday called Maouloud, on which imams and family elders perform a reading from the ancient prayer books to mark the birth of the Prophet Mohammed. “Those manuscripts were my father’s life,” Haidara told me. “They became my life as well.”
That life came under serious threat last year, when a military coup ousted Mali’s democratically elected leader just as a loose alliance of Tuareg separatists and three Islamist militias began conquering broad swaths of the north. The rebels quickly routed the Malian army, and Timbuktu fell in April 2012.
As the militias poured into his city, Haidara knew he had to do something to protect the approximately 300,000 manuscripts in different libraries and homes in and around Timbuktu.
The amazing rescue of Timbuktu’s medieval manuscripts.
“Abba al-Hadi could not read any of the priceless manuscripts he gingerly placed into empty rice sacks each evening last August before spiriting them through Timbuktu’s darkening streets. The wiry septuagenarian had never learned to read or write but, having spent four decades working as a guard at the Ahmed Baba Institute, a state-run body responsible for the restoration and preservation of much of this storied town’s written heritage, he was all too aware of the value of the brittle pages bound in leather cases.
“For Abdoulaye Cissé and other guardians of Timbuktu’s heritage, the fact the crumbling manuscripts were almost lost forever has served to further reinforce their importance. Cissé points out that the books, which document so much about life as it was lived during Timbuktu’s rise and fall over centuries, challenge the notion that Africa’s history was exclusively oral until the arrival of European colonialists.
“‘These manuscripts are important not just for Timbuktu to remember its history but also to remind the world that Africa has a rich, written history contrary to what some once believed,’ says Cissé. ‘Losing even a fraction is a tragedy.’”
On first leaf, a signature reading “a uous me ly/ Glouce(stre)” has been interpreted that it was owned by Richard, Duke of Gloucester, later Richard III.
Pretty medieval manuscript of the day shows an emperor kneeling before a pope. Showcasing the grisaille style, using shades of black and white, it was produced in the low countries but became a part of the English royal collection by 1535.
Image source: British Library MS Royal 14 D I. Image declared as public domain via the British Library website.
Ink cat pawprints in a 15th c. book. I was just wondering today if calligraphers of the past had problems with cats walking across wet ink and ruining things.
This reminds me of the 9th century Old Irish poem, “Pangur Bán,” about a monk working in a scriptorium and his cat, the eponymous Pangur Bán. Translation here is Seamus Heaney’s:Pangur Bán and I at work,Adepts, equals, cat and clerk:His whole instinct is to hunt,Mine to free the meaning pent.More than loud acclaim, I loveBooks, silence, thought, my alcove.Happy for me, Pangur BánChild-plays round some mouse’s den.Truth to tell, just being here,Housed alone, housed together,Adds up to its own reward:Concentration, stealthy art.Next thing an unwary mouseBares his flank: Pangur pounces.Next thing lines that held and heldMeaning back begin to yield.All the while, his round bright eyeFixes on the wall, while IFocus my less piercing gazeOn the challenge of the page.With his unsheathed, perfect nailsPangur springs, exults and kills.When the longed-for, difficultAnswers come, I too exult.So it goes. To each his own.No vying. No vexation.Taking pleasure, taking pains,Kindred spirits, veterans.Day and night, soft purr, soft pad,Pangur Bán has learned his trade.Day and night, my own hard workSolves the cruxes, makes a mark.
Made around the year 1000, most likely during the reign of King Æthelred the Unready (978-1016), this manuscript committed to parchment a tale that (in some modern scholars’ opinions) had been passed down for centuries, between generations of storytellers.
In its present state, the poem, named after its hero Beowulf, contains more than 3,000 lines, and divides conventionally into three comparatively equal sections: Beowulf’s struggle with the monster, Grendel; the revenge of Grendel’s mother; and Beowulf’s final contest with a dragon, which was guarding a hoard of treasure. What marks out Beowulf is the gripping and highly developed story, and the richness of its language.
Now, stories have begun to emerge that nearly all the manuscripts from the Ahmed Baba institute and the city’s many private collections may be safe. First Lila Adam Zanganeh wrote about the crisis for the New Yorker, noting reassurances that the many private collections were in fact safe, though the state of those manuscripts that had been housed in the Centre was still uncertain. Then, Monday, both Harper’s and the Global Post have followed up with the incredible news that in fact almost all of the manuscripts were secreted away even before the city had fallen to rebel groups.
First draft of Roget’s Thesaurus
A thing of wonder!
THE HYGINUS STAR ATLAS (1482)
As with many other star atlases that would follow it, the positions of various stars are indicated overlaid on the image of each constellation.. however, the relative positions of the stars in the woodcuts bear little resemblance to the descriptions given by Hyginus in the text or the actual positions of the stars in the sky. As a result of the inaccuracy of the depicted star positions and the fact that the constellations are not shown with any context, the Poeticon astronomicon is not particularly useful as a guide to the night sky.