Google helps once-endangered priceless Timbuktu scrolls achieve immortality
- Google and a citizen project are helping immortalize once-endangered scrolls of Timbuktu
- Timbuktu was once the cultural and religious centre of Africa
- It was initially established as a trading region
The once-endangered scrolls of the vibrant African medieval city of Timbuktu have found their way into eternity, courtesy of a citizen project and Google.
Known today for its imposing mosques, the city in the West African nation of Mali has become synonymous with the idea of a distant, mystical place in popular culture.
However, Timbuktu was once a cultural and religious centre in Africa that attracted medieval scholars from across the world, scholars who produced hundreds of thousands of manuscripts that today have become invaluable as both historical artefacts and for the knowledge that they contain.
Initially established as a regional trading centre, Timbuktu came into cultural prominence in the 13th century after the establishment of the Djinguereber Mosque and the University of Sankoré, both of which went on to become important centres of learning.
200 years later, Timbuktu found itself experiencing a golden age as scholars from across the world flocked to its centres to exchange knowledge and wisdom.
That exchange led to the creation of hundreds of thousands of manuscripts on academic disciplines ranging from philosophy, astronomy, and mathematics to medicine, agriculture, and religion, manuscripts that today provide invaluable insight into the political and social milieu of that golden age, its trade practices, as well as snippets of medieval life in Timbuktu.
Centuries later, in 2012 and 2013, conflict in Mali threatened the survival of these scrolls, and thousands were thought to be destroyed by Islamic fundamentalists.
However, a bunch of librarians led by Abdel Kader Haidara managed to salvage more than 350,000 scrolls, the account of which is documented in the book 'The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu'.
Yet, the mere transportation of these ancient scrolls away from conflict did not guarantee their survivability: the next logical step was digitization.
It was this thought that drove Haidara to approach Google in 2014. "I turned to Google for digitization because I want to record this legacy we have in West Africa. This legacy that is passed down from scientists, emperors and philosophers is of utmost importance to safeguard," the librarian told CNN.
Since then, as many as 40,000 manuscripts spanning from the 11th to the 20th century have been digitized and uploaded on Google's servers, in a collection named 'Mali Magic' that is available on the Google Arts and Culture portal.
"This is the first time Google Arts and Culture has ever done anything of this scale with regards to ancient manuscripts and publicly availing them on the Google platform," Amit Sood, director of Google Arts and Culture, told CNN, commenting on the feat.
Many of the 40,000 pages now available on Google's platform had never been accessible to the public before: now, scholars and enthusiasts alike can pore over these pages (which have been translated into various languages including English, Arabic, Spanish, and French), accessing stories and knowledge that had been locked away for nearly a millennia.