The historic city of Timbuktu in Mali, recognised for its profound scholarly heritage, harbours the remnants of one of the world’s earliest centres of learning, the University of Sankore. Established in the 1200s AD, this university was a beacon of knowledge, housing an extensive collection of manuscripts. These manuscripts, predominantly inscribed in Ajami—a writing system that employs Arabic script to transcribe African languages, with Hausa being a notable example—served as a testament to the rich intellectual traditions of the region.
As the centuries progressed, from the 1300s through to the 1800s AD, Timbuktu experienced the arrival and, in some cases, the colonisation by Europeans and West Asians. This period marked a turning point for the preservation of the manuscripts. The Malian custodians of this knowledge, acutely aware of the potential risk of destruction or expropriation by foreign invaders—a fate that befell numerous other texts across the African continent, notably in Kemet (ancient Egypt)—took decisive action to safeguard their heritage. They concealed these invaluable documents in various hidden locations, including basements, attics, and underground vaults, thereby shielding them from potential harm.
Among the concealed treasures were manuscripts that covered a broad spectrum of knowledge, including significant works on mathematics and astronomy. These documents are pivotal in understanding the historical depth of mathematical and scientific inquiry in Africa, predating European colonial influence. They reveal a sophisticated grasp of complex concepts and contribute to debunking the myth of a pre-colonial Africa devoid of advanced scholarly pursuits.
In recent decades, the rediscovery of up to 700,000 of these manuscripts has illuminated the enduring legacy of African scholarship. The Timbuktu manuscripts, particularly those related to mathematics and astronomy, underscore Africa’s role as a contributor to the global repository of knowledge well before the advent of European colonisation. This resurgence of interest in Africa’s intellectual history not only enriches our understanding of the past but also inspires a reevaluation of the continent’s place in the history of science and education.



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