(The following is a repost by Marieta Harper, Area Specialist, African Section, African and Middle Eastern Division. It originally appeared on the Library of Congress’ “4 Corners of the World” Blog.)

For almost a millennium, one of the world’s oldest manuscript collections has survived despite the vagaries of the weather, inadequate storage, termites, fire, theft, and wars. These are the manuscript collections of Timbuktu (a city on the edge of the Sahara Desert known as the “City of 333 Saints), which although no longer stored in Timbuktu can still be found today in Mali, in northwest Africa. They were written about every subject and discipline then considered to be important, including astrology, biology, chemistry, ethics, geography, history, jurisprudence, law, medicine, children’s rights, women’s rights, and animal rights.

Some of these manuscripts have been digitized by the Library of Congress. The African Section of the African and Middle Eastern Division in cooperation with Abdel Kader Haidara of the Mamma Haidara Commemorative Library, and of the Library of Cheick Zayni Baye of Boujbehar, selected 32 of these manuscripts, digitized them and uploaded them on the Library’s webpage.

The importance of Timbuktu as a center of a significant written tradition in Africa, came as a result of being situated on the crossroads for trans-Saharan trade and pilgrimage to Mecca. Many individuals traveled to this city to acquire knowledge and important books were written and copied here. As Alexandra Huddleston, a photographer, book artist and publisher who produced a photo book on Mali, observes, among many disciplines long being taught in Timbuktu was “a moderate form of Islam influenced by Sufism and characterized by tolerance, parity and a deep joy in and respect for learning.” “There is a profound conviction that to be a saint is to be a man or woman of knowledge, whether by long study or by divine inspiration. Therefore, to be a scholar is to be on the path to sainthood,” Huddleston points out.

A documentary film “333,” screened on August 3, 2016 at the Library, presented a view about the importance of these manuscripts in various fields, and more specifically in peace building and conflict resolution, and drew the conclusion that they are therefore relevant to the condition of the world today.

Sponsored by the Malian Manuscript Foundation and Sabatier Film Group, “333” highlights the tradition of Sufi Islamic scholars, known as “Ambassadors of Peace,” who for nearly one thousand years have sat daily before sunrise in a setting called the “Circle of Knowledge.”

According to the film, the road to becoming an Ambassador of Peace is long and arduous. It begins before a child reaches the age of five, when the pupil must pledge to study under the direction of a single scholar for a period of approximately 35 years. By age ten, each of these aspirants will speak several languages and must be able to recite the Koran from memory. By age 40, each of them must have mastered jurisprudence.

The film’s producer, Michael Covitt, explained that, “after each candidate has mastered jurisprudence, he or she must go out into the streets as a beggar in the effort to master humility. And then, provided that the scholar is in total communion with Allah, he or she will be exalted to the status of ‘Ambassador of Peace.’”

According to Covitt, many ancient Malian manuscripts on a variety of subjects were written by Ambassadors of Peace. Between the 12th through 16th centuries, some 25,000 students came from around the world to study at the University of Sankoré in Timbuktu (a UNESCO World Heritage Site). As a result, these manuscripts were written in many different languages, including some that were written in both Arabic and Hebrew.

Today when many Malian heritage sites have been destroyed due to wars and political turmoil, these manuscripts remain as the most enduring symbols of this ancient culture and civilization, and provide deep insights not only in science and philosophy, but also in conflict resolution and the bringing of peace to a troubled world.

As this film is now part of the Library’s motion picture collection through copyright deposit, I should mention a number of other resources in the Library’s collections concerning the historical contribution of Islamic scholarship in Timbuktu. They include:
• Online exhibition, “Ancient Manuscripts from the Desert Libraries of Timbuktu,” prepared in 2003.
• A presentation, “333 Saints: A Life of Scholarship in Timbuktu” by Alexandra Huddleston, a 2007 Fulbright Scholar who spent a year in Timbuktu photographing the legacy of traditional Islamic scholarship.
• “Timbuktu Manuscripts and the Efforts to Maintain the Desert” by Abdel Kader Haidara, 2003.
• Online resource for teachers: “Islamic manuscripts from Mali.”
• “UNESCO World Heritage Sites of the republic of Mali” by Janet Goldner, scholar and sculptor.