Lost texts find new life
By Philip Smucker International Herald Tribune
Monday, November 29, 2004
TIMBUKTU, Mali There was a time, centuries ago, when the Sahara was arguably one of the best places on earth to buy a book. From West Africa's Atlantic coast across the sandy expanses to the White Nile in the east, camels laden with chests full of books and manuscripts trekked from one oasis to the next. In caravan cities like Timbuktu, tanners, leather workers and scribes worked to replenish the rich stock of political treatises, scientific manuals, law books and sacred texts.
Many of these works were lost during the colonial era, when Africa became known as a continent with no written history. But others survived, their pages frayed but still intact, some hidden beneath mud homes, others stashed in desert caves, a trove of ancient documents dating from as long ago as 1,000 years.
Today, thanks to outside help, Timbuktu is at the edge of a cultural revival. Increasingly known as a repository of Africa's intellectual heritage, it is attracting scholars seeking to rediscover and preserve the lost texts.
Entire libraries of African texts - mostly written in Arabic, but often transcribed from local African languages - were handed down from father to son over the centuries. In those medieval times, religious and political assemblies met in the courtyards of Timbuktu's many libraries to take up legal matters and to resolve communal disputes. Elders applied ancient texts to the understanding of current affairs.
This is not directly relevant to ancient Judaism, but it occurred to me when I first read about these archives some months ago, that it was entirely likely that Jewish texts - pseudepigrapha, for example - translated into Arabic (perhaps via Syriac or Ethiopic) could be among the manuscripts. The following tidbit offers some encouragment for that hope, and even for the hope of Jewish manuscripts actually transmitted by Jews:
One of Timbuktu's largest remaining libraries, the Fondo Kati, is run by Ismael Diadie Haidara, an eclectic scholar who claims Germanic, Jewish and Black African descent.
"Timbuktu was a melting pot for centuries," said Diadie Haidara, who has written several books, including one on the Jews of Timbuktu, who flourished here centuries ago and built a synagogue that lasted through the 19th century.
I will be watching this story closely.
UPDATE: There's more on Ismael Diadie Haidara and the Jews of Timbuktu here, here, and here.