The Desert Libraries

We just got back from seeing The Secret of Kells, a beautiful animated Irish film about medieval manuscript illuminators. It reminded me of a story I read about last year while researching a project about West Africa.

As far back as the 13th century, when those Medieval scribes in Ireland, France and England were illuminating manuscripts, there were scribes in North Africa doing the same thing. Books were one of the hottest commodities traded by the desert caravans traveling the Sahara between the Mali, Songhai, Ghana, and Arab empires. And their content was amazing: poetry written by women (800 years ago! In Africa!), medical texts, geometry books. The empires crumbled, but out in of some of the most remote place in Mauritania and Mali there are desert libraries with hundreds of thousands of these books, some nearly 1000 years old ,and many mouse-eaten and turning to dust.

I love that the government of Mauritania is now working with Italian restorers to save the books, and that there’s a new high-tech library in Timbuku to help preservation efforts. The Library of Congress has an online exhibit of some of the manuscripts for those of us who probably won’t get over there to see the real things.


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