The Timbuktu Manuscripts

The Timbuktu Manuscripts: discover a trove of Timbuktu’s ancient manuscripts digital exhibition and collection is the result of a collaboration between a Malian association called SAVAMA-DCI whose main goal is to preserve and make widely available Arabic manuscripts from Timbuktu and Google Arts & Culture.

Back in 1973, a preservation campaign of the Timbuktu’s collection made of approximately 400,000 codices was initiated by the Ahmed Baba Center (CEDRAB). In 1996, the newly founded association SAVAMA-DCI started raising awareness among private owners about the value of their family manuscripts, providing technical and financial support for the processing and conservation of these materials, and encouraging them to keep the manuscripts in their possession. If funding was limited at first, the association was over time able to collect enough funds to ensure the preservation and inventory of the collections. In 2012, with the jihadist occupation of Northern Mali, the fear that manuscripts would be destroyed lead to the transfer of Timbuktu’s manuscripts collections to other towns in the region like Bamako. According to SAMAVA-DCI over 370.000 codices were rescued.

« Dans la nuit noire de notre existence, les manuscrits sont les projecteurs qui éclairent le passé. »

Dr. Abdel Kader Haidara, fondateur de SAVAMA-DCI

The Timbuktu Manuscripts virtual exhibition is incredibly rich (more than 40.000 manuscripts from libraries and private collections) and provides many options to learn about the collections, their history, and the rescue and preservation processes.

The website includes:

  • shorts videos documenting the manuscripts’ preservation
  • pictures documenting the rescue operations, and the digitization of manuscripts
  • topical sub-collections of digitized manuscripts (astronomy, ethics, jurisprudence, mathematics, medicine, geography, etc.)
  • general information about the Arabic manuscripts tradition with a focus on the African tradition
  • detailed descriptions of the collections composing The Timbuktu Manuscripts collection
  • historical and literary information situating these manuscripts in the larger context of knowledge production and dissemination in Africa and beyond.

The most incredible experience offered via this virtual exhibition is the digital archives of the Timbuktu Manuscripts:

The main page gallery is staggering.

The archives includes more than 400,000 handwritten pages from the Qur’an, mathematical, astronomical and medical treatises, sex and black magic manuals, etc. dating from the 11th to the 20th century. A selection of manuscripts are accessible full-text from section 2. The Books. Section 3. Grid View allows to glance at individual pages displayed in a table view when section 4. A Universe of Verses gives access to individual pages in what appears like a much less organized display:

At the very bottom of the main page, The Timbuktu Manuscripts virtual exhibition links to other Google Arts & Culture projects to learn more about Malian music, modern art, architectural heritage, etc.

The Timbuktu Manuscripts website will default to the language of your Google Account. But the interface is accessible in any language available in Google (although some content may not translate).

And for those eager to learn more about the Timbuktu manuscripts, we suggest they go visit the Tombouctou Manuscripts Project website. This project focusing on the “content of the manuscripts, the circulation of scholars and ideas, the economy of the manuscript book, and other aspects of the “work of scholarship” in Timbuktu” was established in 2003 by an Associate Professor at the University of Cape Town (South Africa) and remains very active.

Collection of Persian, Mughul and Indian Traditions Miniature Paintings

The Minassian collection consists of numerous precious miniature paintings from the Persian, Mughul and Indian traditions. The manuscripts and miniature paintings of this collection are housed in John Hay Library at Brown University.

“Figure lying on bed in outdoor setting is watched by four other figures. Possible funeral scene. The text that is second from the top, encased in the peachish area, says, in Arabic, “Bismillah e rehman i rahim”.
“Leaf” Minassian Collection of Persian, Mughal, and Indian Miniature Paintings. Brown Digital Repository. Brown University Library. https://repository.library.brown.edu/studio/item/bdr:80654/

This collection is from the estate of Mrs. Adrienne Minassian the daughter of an active art collector and dealer of Islamic and Near-Eastern antiquities, Kirkor Minassian (1874-1944), he was based in New York and Paris in the early 20th century. Mrs. Minassian continued her father’s legacy and she too was one of the few dealers of Islamic art in America. After her passing in a serries of bequests her collection was given to Brown University. To read more about Mrs. Minassian and her Father click here.

This collection is accessible online through the Brown University Center for Digital Scholarship.

The paintings often include text from Persian and Indian tales. Many of the illustrations within the Minassian Collection are depictions of stories from the classical Persian text, Shahnama of Ferdowsi.

Black ink drawing of male bust in profile. Fine line quality, no color used.
“Leaf” Minassian Collection of Persian, Mughal, and Indian Miniature Paintings. Brown Digital Repository. Brown University Library. https://repository.library.brown.edu/studio/item/bdr:80739/

Physical Description: Excellent workmanship on miniature. Image in excellent condition, slight damage to surrounding paper. Paper is rather heavy, but not coarse. Water stain evident on verso. Beautiful specimen. Colors appear as brilliant as inlay. Leaf is very similar to a depiction of Yusof published in Soudavir which is identified as Bukhara style.
“Leaf” Minassian Collection of Persian, Mughal, and Indian Miniature Paintings. Brown Digital Repository. Brown University Library. https://repository.library.brown.edu/studio/item/bdr:80651/

the collection can be browsed based on 3 Thematic Categories of Image and content, Material and Technique and Style and Type. Under each category there are more sub-categories. On the item level a description consisting of an abstract of the item and a note is provided, which present more detailed technical and historic information about the paintings style and content .

From Pen to Printing Press: Ten Centuries of Islamic Book Arts

Is a permanent online exhibit*. This online exhibit is showcasing materials and tools of Islamic literate culture housed in Indiana University collections. It explores various categories of items including Pens, Inks, Modern calligraphies and Marbled papers, Persian and Mughal illustrated manuscripts, Miniature manuscripts and Scroll, Ottoman devotional works.

These various items/topics are presented in five main categories of Writing Implements and Materials, Manuscripts, Paintings and Illustrations, Miniature Manuscripts and Scrolls, Early Printed Books and Modern Revivals. Each category begins with a historical or background information on the topic and its various aspects and continues to introduce some of the significant sample/item in that category. Also, each item comes with detailed information regarding the physical description of the item, content, date and location.  

“This Arabic-Turkish dictionary is the first printed book from the Müteferrika press. This book includes as front matter many of the legal documents the publisher acquired in order to receive permission to produce his printed books. These legal documents have been reproduced as front matter in each copy of this particular book.”

Miniature Qur’an, 19th century, Iran. Available at Lilly Library, Adomeit Miniature Islamic Manuscripts C3.

This online exhibit has also dedicated a section called “Explore Manuscript” to six manuscripts specifically, in order to provide a visual overview of Islamic manuscripts, manuscripts illumination. Some of these six item are religious text some are literary work and they showcase artistic and thematic forms of Islamic book art traditions.

These selected manuscripts are consists of Shamshir Khani (Near Eastern mss Firdawsi Shahnama), Jami’s “Haft Awrang”, a Miniature Qur’an, an Illustrated Prayer Book (Duʿaname), Fragment of Kufic Quran and Qur’an (Juz’ 9 of 30) and their formal and decorative elements such as bindings, illuminated frontispieces, chapter headings, and illustrations have been highlighted.

A Mughal Nobleman

“This single folio painting, extracted from a manuscript or album, depicts a kneeling man in half-profile. The sitter is wearing a highly embroidered robe and bears a dagger upon which his right hand rests. The embroidered robe and ornamented dagger both help identify this person as a high ranking Mughal official. The sitter’s clothing and jewelry are rendered with great detail, as is the bowl and the fabric of the pillow. The background consists of a green hill with scattered trees and a grey cloudy sky. This portrait probably dates from the Jahangir (1605-27) period or the early Shah Jahan (1627-58) period. Jahangir period paintings are recognizable by their forest green backgrounds. Likewise, many albums were made which include the portraits of court officials.”

* “This permanent online exhibit is an adaptation of the Indiana University Art Museum special exhibition, From Pen to Printing Press: Ten Centuries of Islamic Book Arts on display March 7-May 10, 2009.” https://web.archive.org/web/20180521060600/http://www.iub.edu/~iuam/online_modules/islamic_book_arts/exhibit/index.html

Wikilala: an Ottoman digital library

Started in 2019, Wikilala is a digital library making available and full-text searchable documents printed between 1729, when Ibrahim Müteferriqa founded the first Turkish printing Press and the letter revolution in 1928. The project was launched by Hiperlink‘s (first Turkish digital library) project manager, Sadi Özgür, and an academic member at the History Department of Istanbul Aydın University that acted as a consultant, Harun Tuncer.

Wikilala aims “to enable researchers and enthusiasts studying in almost all branches of science, such as culture, art, history, literature, architecture etc. to rediscover even the smallest details in order to illuminate a landscape that has been dimly lighted for two centuries. (…) Wikilala allows (…) to access this huge storage of knowledge.”

“About” page, Wikilala (URL:https://www.wikilala.com/about)

According to the description on the “About” page, Wikilala includes thousands of books, magazines, journals, newspapers,etc. that have been digitized in high-resolution, catalogued, and OCR’ed (i.e. Optical Recognition Character) to allow for full-text searchability. The project also include the “latinization” of texts to allow people who don’t have command of Ottoman Turkish to search the texts in Latin script.

To access Wikilala materials, visitors need to create an account (which is free with an institutional email). Once logged-in, the entire library becomes available.

From the main page (captured above), users can search the library in Latin or Arabic scripts (thanks to a handy multilingual and multialphabets virtual keyboard), or pre-select the type of documents they want to search/read: Newspapers, Journals, Books, Manuscripts and Documents.

From the results page, users will be able to sort the list in the order they want (alphabetical, chronological, etc.) and/or refine the list using the filters available in the right-hand-side column.

There are two methods to open documents: clicking on the Read Now button at the bottom right of the item’s page, or scrolling down to the thumbnails view: both options will open Wikilala’s viewer. The viewer is limited to online reading and full-text search: unfortunately, it does not offer download, saving or printing options. Perhaps will this be a future development?

Wikilala is a platform developed by a private company named hiperkitap, that works on numerous other products individuals and institutions can subscribe to or purchase. McGill can trial it for free until the end of 2021: take advantage of it!

The interface is available in both Turkish and English.

bina : collections patrimoniales numérisées de la BULAC

bina is the digital collection of the Bibliothèque Universitaire des Langues et Civilisations (BULAC), an academic library established in 2001 to centralize the “Oriental” collections of nine parisian academic and research libraries. The wide-range of geographical areas covered by BULAC go from the Balkans, to Oceania passing by the Middle East, Central Asia, Africa, and Asia. BULAC’s mission revolves around three axis: gathering these “Oriental” collections in a single location, promoting and supporting open access, and facilitating worldwide scholars’ access to the materials.

The Middle Eastern, North African and Central Asian collections of BULAC include 235,000 monographs and over 800 periodicals. In addition, the library owns approximately 4,000 “Oriental” manucripts and rare books dating from the 16th to the 19th century. The online cataloguing of these rare collections started in 2013 and the digitization in 2016. At the time of our visit (June 2021), 248 Ottoman Turkish, 150 Persian and 61 Arabic manuscripts and archival documents had been scanned and were available in bina.

The XML-EAD standard initally used to describe these rare materials was not fit to reflect the linguistic and paleographical variety of the collection and the multiple transliteration systems used to transcribe non-roman scripts. Therefore, BULAC worked in collaboration with the Agence bibliographique de l’enseignement supérieur (ABES) to develop bibliographic descriptions and authority records matching the codicological and onomastical specificities of these collections. Those interested in learning more about this cataloguing project can read the following articles (in French):

Navigating bina digital collections can be done in three different ways. The simple search available from the top-right corner of the page will search simultaneaously the title, author, date, description, format and subject fields. The advanced search available either by clicking on the “Rechercher” tab or opening the drop-down menu in the simple search will allow to target specific fields and cross-search them. The Index search allows to browse materials by author, language, type of document and call number.

The metadata is divided in four categories: Notice (bibliographic data), Matérialité (physical description), Contenu (content) and Conservation (location).

The online viewer allows to browse volumes, jump to a specific page, display a single page, double pages or a gallery. It is also possible to save pages either as image of PDF (one page at a time), share (with a permalink) or embed the image elsewhere. Unless otherwise stated, all materials are out of copyright and free of use. For more technical and legal information, you may visit this page.

bina interface is in French.

The Digital Collections platform at The Aga Khan Library, London.

The Aga Khan Library, London houses invaluable resources for Islamic studies produced in different regions and different periods of the Islamic world. The collection of rare materials consists of manuscripts, artworks, out-of-print publications, photographs, and maps, a wide range of research materials on the history, politics, customs, and beliefs. In addition to these materials, the Aga Khan Library is a current custodian of several research collections and personal archives donated by acclaimed scholars in the field of Islamic studies.

Aga Khan Library Digital Collections offers a digitized copy of some of the rare books in the Aga Khan Library, London. Therefore, becoming a member of the library will grant members a full access to the library collection. It is also possible to create a personal account for nonmembers, which will allow users to save books, chapters, images or other items to view later, organize saved items into folders, email and export citations and save searches.

“The Digital Collections platform is a significant milestone in the services of the Aga Khan Library to promote scholarship on Islam, past and present. The platform also supports the Aga Khan Library in its essential role as a facilitator of teaching and research at the Institute of Ismaili Studies, and the Aga Khan University Institute for the Study of Muslim Civilisations, its parent institutions.”

Digital Collections

Ottoman Collection

There are 109 items available for browsing, mainly in Ottoman Turkish Language and mostly published in Turkey. Disciplines include history, archeology, linguistics, literature, law, religion and mythology. Highlights of the collection include Osmanlı Tarihi, an encyclopaedia of Ottoman History; and Türkçülüğün Esasları, Principles of Turkism, a work published in 1923 by Ziya Gökalp.

View collection

Ismaili Printed Materials

There are 62 items available for browsing, chiefly in Arabic and some in Gujarati and other languages, mostly published in India. Disciplines include Religions, Mythology, History, Archeology and Literature. One of the highlights of the collection include works by the renowned Persian poet and traveller, Nasir-i Khusraw (d. 1088), and a large holdings of devotional hymns known as ginans attributed to Ismaili Pirs in the Indian sub-continent.

View collection

Peter Avery

Professor Avery (1923–2008) was an eminent scholar of Persian history and literature. His collection contains thousands of volumes including manuscripts, lithographs, and many rare and out-of-print titles in Persian, English, and Arabic, some dating back to the early 18th century. There are 2 items available for browsing at the moment.

Muhammad Abduh

A collection of books and holograph manuscripts casts a light on Muhammad Abduh (1849–1905) will be available soon. He was a crucial figure in the intellectual history of Egypt and the Muslim countries.

There are multiple ways of navigating the content: The main Search box in the header or the advanced Search; search by keyword with date range; search using combinations of author name, title, category, date range, or identifier.

Users can print and download individual images. All use of the site content is subject to Terms and Conditions, printing and saving should be for personal use, and standard copyright restrictions apply regarding unauthorized copying and distribution.

Open access Islamic-Iranian manuscripts database: گنجینه باز نسخ خطی اسلامی – ایرانی

Open access Islamic-Iranian manuscripts database has been established with the aim of providing access to resources for researchers and scholars with the focus on the manuscripts of the Islamic world and Iran. This site, in order to promote the values of Iranian culture, with the help of group of dedicated partners tried to make available manuscripts and develop techniques of accessing the manuscripts of the Islamic world and Iran. And recently they have run their pilot version of their website.

قرآن، ایران کتابخانه حائري – قم

It is possible to read manuscripts electronically and, on the web, as well as access other resources provided in this database such as books and articles related to the field of manuscripts.

This initiative consists of various departments such as cataloging, graphic editing, image development, public and international relations, and IT.

رسالة، ایران کتابخانه حضرت ولیعصر – خوانسار

Development of their archive relies on collaboration of private collection owners, personal collections, national libraries, or other entities who are willing to share their manuscripts, books, or their resources with them to be digitized and to be made available for public use.  

قرآن، عراق منشا نامشخص

The image of manuscripts is accessible for everyone; however, the website interface is only available in Persian language. Each manuscript can be browsed, and bibliographic information is presented consisting of language of the item, subject and author. Also, when available more details about the manuscript is shared such as title, author or manuscript’s transcriber as well as where the item is kept, and it also indicates if the manuscript is not complete.

Sinai Manuscripts Digital Library

Sinai Manuscripts Digital Library is a project of St. Catherine’s Monastery of the Sinai, in collaboration with the Early Manuscripts Electronic Library (EMEL) and the UCLA Library.

Located in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, St. Catherine’s Monastery is “one of the world’s oldest monasteries and a UNESCO World Heritage Site.” The site has been occupied by monks since the 4th century, but the monastery was formally established in 6th century the Byzantine Emperor Justinian. Thanks to its remote location, the Monastery has been able to preserve one of the world’s most important libraries holding 4,559 manuscripts dating from the 4th to the 19th century in 13 languages, covering a wide range of topics (Bible, liturgy, hagiography, patristics, spirituality, and history, classical poetic, scientific and philosophical texts). Widely recognized as “the world’s oldest continually operating library, the manuscript holdings of St. Catherine’s Monastery represent an unparalleled resource to study the history and literature of the Eastern Mediterranean from late antiquity until early modernity.”

Started in February 2018, the digitization of 1,172 Arabic and Syriac (400,000 pages) should be completed in March 2022. The second phase of the project will focus on digitizing Greek, Georgian, Slavonic and other languages 3,387 codices (1.1 million pages).

At the time of our visit, a total of 660 manuscripts in Arabic, Syriac, Greek, Aramaic, Turkish, Coptic and Latin were accessible via the following categories:

Within each category, holdings can be filtered by genre (the majority of the manuscripts fall into the liturgical and biblical texts genres), date (ranging from 501 to 1900), writing system (the large majority of manuscripts are written in Arabic and Syriac), script (Naskh being the most used calligraphy in this collection), codicological features (colophon, decorations, marginal notes, etc.), support (paper or parchment), form (all of them are codices), and names. Results are displayed either in list or gallery view:

Please note that access to digital versions of manuscripts is conditioned to the creation of a free account. Once logged in, you may open records and view the manuscripts in the custom-made viewer:

Records include bibliographical and codicological information on the codex as well as references. A good variety of reading options are available as shown below:

The Sinai Manuscripts Digital Library benefits from the contributions of worldwide digital imaging scientists and technicians, conservators, consulting scholars, librarians, program managers, and software designers. The first phase received funding from the Ahmanson Foundation, Arcadia, the Museum of the Bible Scholar’s Initiative, and the Steinmetz Family Foundation.

For more information about conservation, digitization standards and methods and rights to use images, please see the About page.

Al-Furqan Islamic Heritage Foundation

Al- Furqan Islamic Heritage Foundation, is a non-profit institution and was founded in 1988 by Ahmad Zaki Yamani and is based in London.

Preservation and documentation of written Islamic Heritage was the initial goal of the Al-Furqan, but it has expanded beyond its initial aim and has three centers active in the field of Islamic studies. Also Al-Furqan  has published many different publications in the field of Islamic manuscripts, one of which is “World Survey of Islamic Manuscripts” and is known as a pioneering work that catalogues manuscripts in various countries from all over the world.

This publication is available at McGill library and can be found here : https://mcgill.on.worldcat.org/oclc/26816242  

Moreover, after completion of the above mentioned publication the digitized outcome of the World Survey of Islamic Manuscripts is called ‘World Collections’ databank and can be accessed through Al-Furqan digital library at this address: https://digitallibrary.al-furqan.com/world_library.

The three centers of Al-Furqan, with their publication, research and academic activates, are contributing in various ways to the goal of the foundation, which is conservation, promotion and study of Islamic manuscripts, these three centers are:

“The Manuscript Centre within Al-Furqan was established in 1988, aiming to preserve and study the Islamic manuscripts, which constitute a particularly important part of Islamic heritage…..”
“[….] The Manuscript Centre within Al-Furqan is committed to mobilising all available expertise to preserve these manuscripts and to restore their content to the cultural mainstream.”

“In 1991, the late Sheikh Hamad al-Jasser, a member of Al-Furqan Islamic Heritage Foundation, gave a keynote speech at the Foundation’s launch, in which he presented some of the most valuable manuscripts of Makkah and Madinah and urged the Foundation to undertake the task of producing an encyclopaedia of the two great cities.”

“The mission of the Centre is summarised in the revitalisation of the knowledge of al-maqasid (objectives, purposes), in order to develop the process of ijtihad (free reasoning) and the renewal of Islamic fiqh (jurisprudence), its fundamental theory (usul), and Islamic thought in general. The Centre also aims to broaden the horizons of knowledge for students of Islamic studies everywhere.”

Another important part of Al-Furqan Foundation is its Digital library which was established in 2013 with the aim of advancing and supporting research as well as raising awareness regarding Islamic written heritage especially Islamic manuscripts. To this end, Al-Furqan Digital Library has a valuable and large collection of references as well as primary resources and presents an increasing repository of bibliographic information about manuscripts and manuscript collections worldwide.

This Digital library is user-friendly and interactive and is available in Arabic and English. It also has a very well-designed guide that walks users through various aspects of the library and show them how to use and access material.

Moreover, Al-Furqan Foundation’s website provides access to a wide range of different information including a section called Selected Articles that provides access to the different full text article in the selected topics of  Articles on Islamic Manuscripts ,  Articles on Makkah & Madinah Articles on the Philosophy of Islamic Law as well as  Articles related to International Days .

Al-Furqan has many publications which can be browsed here, also it worth mentioning that Islamic Studies Library of McGill has many of its publication which can be searched and found in the library catalogue.

Mouse & Manuscript

Mouse and Manuscript is a free online collection of codicology and paleography lessons in a form of an innovative online “textbook”. Mouse and Manuscript is created by researchers and librarians at Leiden University, using rich and outstanding collection of Oriental manuscripts at Leiden University.

According to Dictionary of English Manuscript terminology:

“‘Codicology’ denotes the study of manuscript books, or codices, in all aspects, including their physical structure, texts, script, binding, decoration, and other features of their production.” *

“’Paleography’ denotes the study of handwriting and of the history of scripts. It involves such practices as the analysis and description of old manuscripts, the deciphering of texts, the dating and identification of hands and scripts, and recognition of the place of origin of a manuscript and of the scribal practices and conventions represented in it.” **

These lessons are offered in an interactive fashion and the goal is to teach various aspects of codicology and paleography. Moreover, by analyzing historical traces in the digitized manuscripts used in this collection, these lessons are trying to show case methods of book making prior to printing press. So far 53 lessons are released and  some of the titles are as follow:

The Manuscripts used in this online textbook are in Arabic, Persian, …. and from Middle East, East Asia, Africa and beyond.

Each lesson consists of several parts, such as an overview of the the manuscript, discussing the specification of the document, transcription and transliteration of the content, and more importantly, fully high resolution digitized manuscript, with the possibility of zooming and turning pages.

Damage and protectionLESSON 7 – DR. DORRIT VAN DALEN

At the end of each lesson a list of more relevant readings and resources as are given well as some assignments/homework.

Dorrit van Dalen initiated Mouse and Manuscript, created and edited several lessons (2, 12, 14, 20, 21, 22, 51) and launched the website in 2020. All other contributor and creators of the lessons are linked to Leiden University through their researches, to learn more about individuals involve in this project click here.

McGill Islamic Studies Library also have various resources on Codicology and Paleography that can be searched and found via library catalogue . some of the titles are as follow:

  • Comparative oriental manuscript studies : an introduction, by Alessandro Bausi, Eugenia Sokolinski, Pier Giorgio Borbone 2015 , Link to the library here.
  • علم الاكتناه العربي الإسلامي = Arabic Islamic palaeography [sic] and codicologyʻIlm al-iktināh al-ʻArabī al-Islāmī = Arabic Islamic palaeography and codicology, by تصنيف قاسم السامرائي., سامرائي، قاسم . 2001. Link to the library here.
  • Writings and writing : investigations in Islamic text and script : in honour of Dr Januarius Justus Witkam, Professor of Codicology and Palaeography of the Islamic world at Leyden University, by Robert M Kerr 1968- (Editor), Thomas Milo (Editor), Jan Just Witkam 1945- (Honouree.) 2013. Link to the library here.

* Beal, P. (2008). codicology. In A Dictionary of English Manuscript Terminology 1450–2000. : Oxford University Press. Retrieved 3 Feb. 2021, from https://www.oxfordreference.com/view/10.1093/acref/9780199576128.001.0001/acref-9780199576128-e-0184.

**Beal, P. (2008). palaeography. In A Dictionary of English Manuscript Terminology 1450–2000. : Oxford University Press. Retrieved 3 Feb. 2021, from https://www.oxfordreference.com/view/10.1093/acref/9780199576128.001.0001/acref-9780199576128-e-0718