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August2009
HOME Let's Get Serial Postcards from the Edge A Chapter a Day Keeps the Boredom at Bay Head of the Class Projecting the Environment The Dog Days of Summer You've Heard of Timbuktu, but Do You Know Where It Is?
You've Heard of Timbuktu, but Do You Know Where It Is?

Timbuktu is the legendary city founded as a commercial center in West Africa 900 years ago. Today this city in present-day Mali is synonymous with the phrase "utterly remote," but this was not always so. For more than 600 years, Timbuktu was a significant religious, cultural and commercial center whose residents traveled throughout Asia, Africa and Europe. Timbuktu was famous for educating important scholars who were well known throughout the Islamic world. Many individuals traveled to the city to acquire knowledge; others came to acquire wealth and political power.

U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, [Map of Mali], 1994, Washington D.C. Gospel of Luke 20: 1-8, in Arabic, A.D. 993, Cairo

Situated on the edge of the Sahara Desert, Timbuktu was famous among the merchants of the Mediterranean basin as a market for obtaining the goods and products of Africa south of the desert. However, Timbuktu's most famous and long-lasting contribution to Islamic and world civilization is the scholarship practiced there. By at least the 14th century, important books were written and copied there, establishing the city as the center of a significant written tradition in Africa.

As part of its mission to create a universal collection of recorded knowledge from all geographic areas and all historical eras, the Library of Congress is particularly proud to have the opportunity to exhibit these important cultural artifacts from Mali in the exhibition "Ancient Manuscripts from the Desert Libraries of Timbuktu." You can see these rare manuscripts in the Library's Jefferson Building until Sept. 3. They are on loan from the Mamma Haidara Commemorative Library and the Library of Cheick Zayni Baye of Boujbeha, two of the most noteworthy institutions in the Timbuktu area. The Library is also pleased that copies of these manuscripts will be deposited in its collections and will be available for use by researchers and scholars. This exhibition was planned in conjunction with the Smithsonian Institution's National Folklife Festival.

A current map of Mali from the Geography and Map Division is also part of this exhibition. "Tombouctou," as it is called on this map, is on the Niger River in the center of this landlocked nation.

Another Library exhibition that featured ancient as well as legendary manuscripts was "Scrolls from the Dead Sea: The Ancient Library of Qumran and Modern Scholarship." The exhibition was on view in 1993, but like most major Library exhibitions, is available for viewing indefinitely on this Web site. Since their discovery nearly half a century ago, the scrolls and the identity of the nearby settlement have been the object of great scholarly and public interest, as well as heated debate and controversy. Why were the scrolls hidden in caves? Who placed them there? Who lived in Qumran, where the scrolls were discovered? Were its inhabitants responsible for the scrolls and their presence in the caves? Of what significance are the scrolls to Judaism and Christianity? These questions, for which there are no definitive answers, are explored in this exhibition.

Want to learn about other ancient materials?

In Rome Reborn: The Vatican Library & Renaissance Culture you can see such artifacts as Gospel of Luke in Arabic from A.D. 993. This tenth-century Egyptian codex was donated to Pope Eugene IV by the Egyptian delegates at the Council of Ferrara-Florence. Translated from a Coptic original, it is one of the earliest Arabic versions of any part of the New Testament, none of which can be dated before the late eighth or ninth centuries. The text displayed is from Luke 20.

The collections of the Library's Asian Division contain one of the world's earliest surviving printed materials, the dharani prayer charms from A.D. 770. You can learn more about the Asian Division collections in the "Asian Collections: An Illustrated Guide." Other "Illustrated Guides" to the extraordinary holdings of the Library can be accessed at Illustrated Guides home page. There you will find guides to the "European Collections," "Geography and Maps," "Hispanic and Portuguese Collections," "Manuscripts," "Music, Theater, Dance," "Prints and Photographs," "Rare Books and Special Collections," "Motion Pictures, Broadcasting, Recorded Sound," "Africana Collections," "Asian Collections," "Hebraic Collections" and "Near East Collections."


A. U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, [Map of Mali], 1994, Washington D.C. Geography and Map Division.

B. Gospel of Luke 20: 1-8, in Arabic, A.D. 993, Cairo. Vatican Library (not in Library of Congress)