Endangered Archives

EAP269: Preliminary survey of Arabic manuscripts in Djenné, Mali, with a view to a major project of preservation, digitisation and cataloguing

Ms Sophie Sarin, La Mission Culturelle, Djenné
2009 award - Pilot project
£7,715 for 4 months

Archival partner: La Bibliothèque de Djenné

Project Overview

This pilot project will survey the scope and extent of the existing Arabic manuscripts of Djenné, Mali, a town which has historically equalled Timbuktu in importance as a centre of Islamic learning and sub-Saharan trade since the foundation of both towns around a millennium ago.

It has been estimated by the Malian scholar Abdel Kader Haidara, the Director of the Mamma Haidara Library in Timbuktu, that there are approximately 10,000 manuscripts in Djenné, some dating back to the 11th and 12th centuries. These manuscripts include those written in situ by individual Marabouts, and also many purchased from elsewhere by Djenné collectors. Most of these manuscripts are kept by individual families, and only a very small portion have been deposited in the newly built Djenné library.

The Djenné manuscripts are similar to those of Timbuktu, i.e. the main part consists of transcripts of the Koran, many illuminated and some bearing comments in the margin. There are many other types of manuscripts too, including material treating subjects such as mathematics, medicine, geography, law and astronomy. The historical manuscripts include information on economic connections between Timbuktu and Djenné. In addition there are manuscripts transcribing the oral history as handed down by the 'griots', or the 'minstrels' of West Africa. There may well be differences between the Djenné and Timbuktu material as yet not discovered. Although the two towns are linked and often called 'twin cities', their geography and populations are very different. While the population of Timbuktu is overwhelmingly made up by the light skinned nomadic desert Tuaregs, the town of Djenné, situated in the heart of the Niger inland Delta, counts amongst its population the Fulani, the Bozo, the Bambara, and the Songhai. Some of these tribes are a darker-skinned population descended from the ancient Malian kingdoms to the south, a population for whom animist traditions have remained strong, running alongside their Muslim faith. These cultural differences are likely to be mirrored in the Djenné manuscripts and may well throw new light on aspects of West-African history.

There are approximately 200 manuscripts currently held by the Djenné library. These are not in any immediate danger of decay. The vast majority of the manuscripts kept by individual families however suffer numerous environmental threats such as from termites and also water damage during the rainy season when the mud roofs of Djenné often leak.

During this pilot project, there will be a programme of information aimed at the individual Djenné families to reassure them that their manuscripts will be well taken care of if housed in the Djenné library and that the collections will be kept intact bearing the name of the family. The project will be carried out by a Malian Arabic scholar and archivist, trained in Timbuktu, working with a Djenné Arabic scholar who would at the same time be receiving training. The project would be supervised by Abdel Kader Haidara, who has given his full support.

The project will produce an overall view of the Djenné manuscripts which will pave the way for the eventual copying and cataloguing of this material, and this preliminary stage will also provide an early encounter between the families and the researchers, which will hopefully foster good relations for a future major preservation project.

Project Outcome

The Djenné Library held 1,519 manuscripts at the beginning of the project, donated by 24 families. These have all been listed. By the time the project ended, nine further families had donated another 653 manuscripts, thus bringing the Djenné Library Manuscript collection to a total of 2,172. The oldest dated manuscript found was from 1631, although many may be much older.

The team investigated 13 family collections and counted a total of 2,885 new manuscripts. None of these collections had been viewed by Abdel Kader Haidara in 2004, when he estimated in the region of 10,000 manuscripts in Djenné. By the end of this Pilot Project it seems likely the figure is substantially higher. In the majority of cases the team did not view the entirety of the collections, but often several chests or metal boxes remained untouched.

There was a marked difference between the subject matter of the Djenné and the Timbuktu manuscripts, according to the Timbuktu archivist Samba Ibrahim. Out of the 2,885 new manuscripts viewed, 1,479 were entered under the subject matter ‘Esotericim’ which in this case means ‘Magic’. Djenné is regarded throughout Mali as a centre for ‘maraboutage’, or the practice of magic.

In the course of the work the Djenné archivists received training from two experienced workers from the Timbuktu libraries, and Garba, the Djenné librarian is now able to work on a computer.

The family collections remain kept in metal boxes, where they are relatively safe. The danger is often when they are stored in wooden boxes where they can come under attack from termites. The access to the manuscripts held by the families is at the moment restricted and needs the librarian to negociate any eventual viewings.

The Djenné Library provides relatively safe housing for the manuscripts on shelving in cupboards fronted with protective netting.

The survey results are available here: