Issue 16 / March 2021
The Books of Timbuktu
a portrait of Shamil Jeppie by Sonja Asal
The Malian desert city has been harboring book treasures for hundreds of years. Researching them, though, has only just begun
“We finally reached Timbuktu at sunset,” was the 1828 report of the Frenchman René Caillié, Africa traveler and one of the first Europeans to ever reach the site. “Setting foot in this mysterious city, an object of curiosity and exploration for the civilized nations of Europe, gave me indescribable satisfaction. How many prayers of thanksgiving I uttered for the protection that God had granted me in the face of almost insurmountable obstacles and dangers! But when I now looked about me, the city offered nothing but an assemblage of dingy mud-walled houses.” Caillié’s disappointment must have been all that much greater because for centuries tales of fabulous gold riches abounded around this city on the southern edge of the Sahara. And to this day the mere name “Timbuktu” still succeeds in capturing the human imagination to such an extent that even a perfume, a gambling parlor in Calcutta, and a Swedish rapper can be named after the legendary city.
Shamil Jeppie amusedly lists a number of such examples – of which he has an entire collection. But popular notions of the desert city in Mali are only a single aspect of the research project he is pursuing during his stay at the Wissenschaftskolleg. His working title is “Timbuktu as Archive” and it betokens a general history of the way in which books were collected, copied and traded there for centuries. From very early on, Timbuktu was not only a geographical pivot for the trade in such lucrative commodities as salt and slaves but an important center of scholarship. In his Description of Africa (1550) the jurist and early traveler Leo Africanus reported that of all the goods traded in Timbuktu there was none that brought greater profit than books. Jeppie says that he often reflects on this assertion and the truth or untruth of it. As a professional historian he is also a trained skeptic. But why should anyone invent such a thing? And if the assertion is indeed true – which Jeppie assumes to be the case – then why were books, of all things, such valuable commodities?
These considerations are already a marker of Jeppie’s way of doing history. He is persuaded that in approaching a subject from a certain specific angle one can shed new light on more wide-ranging issues. Jeppie pursued history and Arabic studies in Cape Town, where he also undertook his first research projects and where he now teaches history. At the time he was interested in social and cultural history – topics such as the Carnival. He proceeded from the conviction that history is not just a succession of kings, conquests and empires, and he was therefore concerned with the everyday lives of ordinary people. The geographic focus of his work shifted when he went to Princeton for his doctorate and wrote a dissertation on the Turkish-Egyptian occupation of present-day Sudan. The fact that this made him an Africanist according to the standard classifications of Area Studies, however, does not fully reflect how he sees himself: “For me, at that point in time, the term ‘Africanist’ designated a political position.” He believes that history is generally about the human past, and if there is a global inequality in this it is because some areas of the world simply receive more attention than others: “There was probably greater literary production at certain times in certain areas that seem poor today, than there was in places that are currently centers of high culture.”
Jeppie is keen to emphasize that in historiography he is uninterested in anything that smacks of an oppositional attitude – that is to say, us-versus-them. He instead avails himself of a humanistic-universalist approach, in contrast to what he criticizes as rather limited approaches in those methodologies informed by “identity politics.” Yet having grown up in apartheid South Africa, he is acutely aware of the political significance of identity formation. He remembers how during his school years, in the 1970s and 1980s, history was taught as the history of whites. With the anti-apartheid movement, however, the time had come to stop teaching African history from a colonial perspective. One of his most important teachers was Neville Alexander who was imprisoned on Robben Island for ten years with Nelson Mandela. Alexander taught Jeppie history in a way that harmonized perfectly with the euphoria of a new beginning sweeping the nation during that period. Then some time ago, when Jeppie was paging through his old “alternative” school notes, he ran across the name “Timbuktu.” In his student days the image of the wealthy trading city, in one of Africa’s great empires, was a very prepossessing one. “The teaching style back then was a product of the times,” says Jeppie. “The main concern was to convey what had been withheld from us and to reveal the greatness of Africa’s past, with no internal contradictions.”
It was a history of self-empowerment whose agenda was to show – in opposition to the verdicts of European historiography and the influential prejudices of Hegel or Hugh Trevor-Roper – that the history of Africa was more than just the history of whites on the continent, that the African people had a history of their own.
An important building block in this was the project for a “General History of Africa” as launched by UNESCO in 1964. This major undertaking was accompanied by the demand to protect and make available those sources necessary to historiography, and it is here that Timbuktu once more enters the picture – this time as an archive. “UNESCO discovered in Timbuktu a symbol for the written tradition of the entire continent,” explains Jeppie. In 2001, along with other countries and organizations, South Africa began setting up an aid program in Mali that included the construction of a new library and the training of personnel. “It was a kind of pan-African solidarity,” says Jeppie in evaluating the work he was supporting as historian-consultant in a team of book-conservation specialists, restorers and librarians, and it also served as his point of entry into the history of books: “In this period I learned an incredible amount about paper, from its conservation through to issues of building technology such as how climatized spaces in the desert can be constructed in an ecologically responsible manner.”
Jeppie soon saw that the writings in Timbuktu would become his life’s work. Ever since 2002, when he first visited the place, he has returned almost annually – insofar as political circumstances allowed. It caused a major international stir in 2012 when the city was occupied by jihadists who were perceived as an existential threat to the valuable manuscripts on site. No one can say with certainty how many were ultimately destroyed or disappeared, but according to Jeppie the numbers initially circulating in the press at the time – in the thousands – were grossly exaggerated. And many of these manuscripts were saved from potential destruction through an adventurous operation in which they were smuggled out to Bamako where they are still today being digitalized and conserved, with international assistance, so as to one day make the journey back to Timbuktu. Of one thing Jeppie is certain – that the work must continue, which means above all that Timbuktu’s holdings must be made accessible to researchers from around the world. That is the claim that, for him, is derived from UNESCO’s recognition of Timbuktu as a World Heritage Site.
What makes the situation so difficult to assess is closely related to how manuscripts were and still are collected and preserved. For centuries every scholar had his own library, which was traditionally passed down within the family to later generations. At start of the 2000s, when international interest in the written tradition arose and funding programs were initiated, along with the state libraries there were many family libraries being opened – though these “libraries” are perhaps more properly termed archives, for the “books” are in fact bundles of manuscripts swaddled in camelskin or goatskin. “Printing techniques came very late to northwest Africa, the French brought it to Senegal and from there to the African interior,” says Jeppie and goes on to explain that the traditional technique was to copy books by hand: “The study of the history of books in the West is essentially the history of printed books. But there is also a history of books in manuscript form which is longer than the history of books in their printed version.” Jeppie also sees fit to correct the notion that libraries were treasure troves full of illuminated manuscripts; instead they had more the character of research libraries where textbooks were mixed in with legal opinions and philosophical works or those of natural science.
Research on this is still very patchy due not only to the texts’ poor accessibility but also owing to the scholarly situation. “Those who are interested in Arabic intellectual history,” says Jeppie, “will mostly be working on the Middle East.” In contrast, writing has a very long tradition in northern Africa: “We know that the first epitaphs date back to the eleventh century.” They can be found on some four hundred tombstones throughout the region around Timbuktu. For the book he has planned, Jeppie will begin his account a few centuries later with the jurist Ahmad Baba, who was born to a family of scholars in 1556 in what was then the Songhai Empire. “We know from his texts,” says Jeppie, “that his parents and grandparents owned writings, which means that a literary tradition must have been established there no later than 1450.” And this tradition was eminent: in one of Ahmad Baba’s letters he mentions that his father’s library comprised seven hundred volumes; his own library was at least double that number. After the Moroccan sultan conquered Timbuktu in 1591, Ahmad Baba was forced into exile in Marrakesh. “He was under house arrest there,” relates Jeppie, “but it was his most productive period. He taught and wrote several books. When the exile was lifted and he was able to return, he wrote a letter to the sultan’s successor requesting that his library of 1600 volumes be returned – which meant having them carried across the desert on the backs of camels.”
We do not know whether this did in fact transpire and what ultimately happened to his library. What is certain is that of his sixty or so works, at best only a handful are accessible in print today. This too Jeppie wishes to change by including one of the manuscripts in his own book. He characterizes it as a kind of mirror for princes that deals with the question as to whether scholars should be remunerated for their work. Jeppie thoroughly investigates the text at a number of levels. For example he looks at the ways in which references to books and other writings turn up. Is Baba speaking of a booklet, a pamphlet or a volume? What other works does he cite? To this point, Jeppie has been able to identify about thirty different sources. Perhaps they will also shed light on what incited Baba to follow this line of inquiry in the first place? “I want to show how it is possible to use this material in writing both intellectual history and the history of books,” says Jeppie in explaining his working method. His history is about very tangible things – a material history of writing, the stuff that books are made of, and through which ideas ultimately travel from one place to another. How is paper manufactured, how is it traded, by what means is it transported? Jeppie is not so much interested in finished collections as he is in the movement that brought them into existence.
The second figure that Jeppie uses to demonstrate the handling of writing would seem tailor-made for exploring such questions. Born in the 1860s to a family of Moroccan merchants, Ahmad Bul’araf can perhaps best be described as a kind of intellectual entrepreneur. Originally a businessman, he began to interest himself in books as something more than simple commodities. He bought them, employed scribes to make copies, then sold them while always retaining one copy for himself. In pursuing this activity, he maintained a sprawling network of correspondence with publishers in Nigeria, Niger, Egypt and Morocco.
Does Jeppie see Bul’araf as in any way typical in his approach to books? “I can’t compare him with anyone else from the same period,” says the historian who rather places him in a long line of scholars going back to Ahmad Baba, for instance in the way he used the technique of copying – which has remained relatively unchanged across the centuries – into the mid-twentieth century: “Bul’araf is one of those figures who suddenly appear on the historical scene and make their impact felt without being a direct product of their time.” But even if these figures cannot be explained as creatures of their era, it still requires a great deal of historical knowledge to understand just what kind of infrastructure they are operating within. For example, Jeppie does not necessarily want to do colonial history, but he has delved deeply into the workings of the postal system established by the French colonial power, which Bul’araf used to write to publishers and have books sent his way. The largest gap in Jeppie’s research is where exactly Bul’araf obtained the vast amounts of paper necessary for the copying; presumably from the other side of the Mediterranean where the trade routes usually led.
In hearing Jeppie list all the places he has traveled for his research, it soon becomes clear – from a sheer spatial standpoint – that his book cannot only be about Timbuktu; but even from a temporal perspective the city’s importance was subject to historical fluctuations. After the Moroccan occupation in the seventeenth century, Timbuktu lost its previous importance. Trade routes changed, now traveling through the city of Djenné further to the southeast, among other shifts, while scholarship drifted westward to what is present-day Mauritania and established itself in towns such as Oualata and Chinguetti, which are also UNESCO World Heritage Sites. “We always think of education as a sedentary matter,” Jeppie summarizes, “but here it took place in transit. For me Timbuktu is more like a nodal point in a network of many other cities where there is an ancient tradition of scholarship.”
More on: Shamil Jeppie
Images: © Maurice Weiss