The Fate of Timbuktu’s Andalusian Manuscripts

Mohammed Elrazzaz, Wednesday 22 Aug 2012

As heritage experts lament the damage done to historical monuments in Timbuktu, another treasure no less important is in great danger: the manuscripts of the Kati Collection

manuscript of ahmed baba

“Salt come from the North, and gold, from the South,
Silver comes from the land of the white people,
But the words of God, the holy things, the beautiful tales,
Can only be found in Timbuktu” – Ahmed Baba al-Massufi (XVI c.)

Ahmed Baba was one of Timbuktu's most celebrated scholars in the medieval period. His writing about the city can be best understood if we go back in time to Timbuktu of the Songhai Empire of the 15th and 16th centuries. What you find in Baba's writings is one of history’s most dramatic cultural odysseys, that of the Kati manuscripts. The story, however, starts elsewhere – and goes back further in time. It starts in Toledo in present-day Spain, and its legacy lives on in Timbuktu and other caravan cities of West Africa.

From the Tajo to the River Niger

In 1467…Toledo is on fire. Ali bin Ziyad al-Quti participates in the rebellion that provokes confrontations between Muslims and Christians. The rebellion is crushed and the man is forced to leave. Instead of heading for Granada (the last Islamic kingdom of Andalus), he sets sail across the Strait of Gibraltar arriving in North Africa, with nothing in his bag other than some manuscripts. No-one could have predicted that these manuscripts would become the seeds for a flourishing cultural scene in West Africa.

Cultural and economic exchange between West Africa and Andalus flourished from the 11th century onwards, and many African cities were reinvented by virtue of forming part of the gold and salt caravan routes. By the 14th century, Timbuktu shone as the crown jewel of the Malian Empire, thanks in particular to Mansa (KanKan) Musa. Musa recruited scholars, intellectuals and even architects from Andalus and Egypt in order to build his kingdom into a centre of learning. Djinguereber Mosque, known as a learning-centre, built by El-Saheli of Granada for Musa, still stands in Timbuktu. Eventually, Timbuktu began to appear on European trade maps and attracted students and scholars from as far as Arabia and Andalus. The culmination of the Andalusian influence, however, would take place in the 15th century through the Kati family under the Songhai Empire. It all started with Ali bin Ziyad, who arrived in West Africa bearing just manuscripts. His son Mahmud Kati had an African mother, and so Kati represented the bond between two cultures.

Kati boosted his status by marrying a woman from the ruling Songhai family. His bride's father would eventually ascend to the throne as emperor. And when he did, he initiated Mahmud Kati into politics and prepared him as a statesman. Meanwhile, Kati further build and diversified his knowledge. As he accumulated wealth, he bought more books and further enriched the collection he had inherited from his father and those manuscripts of the emperor.

Kati died in 1593. Never would he have imagined the great lengths that his descendents would go to in order to fulfill his wish that the library he created be protected.

A modern saga

“The last city of Andalus is neither Malaga nor Algeciras, it is Timbuktu” –Ismael Diadie Kati

Over the centuries, the Kati Family mixed through marriage with African tribes, Moriscos, Portuguese renegades and Sephardic Jews. The Kati manuscripts survived one misfortune after another that came from as diverse an array of sources. First there were Moroccan attacks on the Songhai Empire led by Jawdar Pasha and Ibn Zarkun. Then, centuries later, came radical Islamists, followed by colonial powers. The family had to react. Desperate times called for desperate measures: they distributed the manuscripts of the collection among the family members, each of whom headed somewhere in the Niger Basin. The manuscripts were dispersed and carefully hidden to hide them from the French colonial powers.

In the 1990s, Ismael Diadie Haiydara Kati, together with his father, undertook the heroic task of tracing the old family members and collecting all the Kati manuscripts. Some are destroyed or damaged, but they managed to collect over 3,000 manuscripts. Spain financed the construction of a building that housed the Bibliotheca Kati (Fondo Kati). It houses works in Arabic, Hebrew and Aljamiado (Romance languages written in the Arabic script) written by Andalusian scholars and immigrants, Jewish merchants, Arab intellectuals and Christian renegades. From medicine and mathematics to philosophy and law, the Kati collection is a treasure in every sense of the word, covering a period that extends from the 12th through to the 19th century.

The collection includes rare accounts of important historical periods such as the spread of Islam in Andalus, the expulsion of the Moriscos from Spain, the rise and fall of the Songhai Empire. Not least of which, the manuscripts recount the period through a history of the Kati family over five centuries, which is the longest known history line of any Andalusi family outside of Spain.

Three books are of particular interest: a 12th century Quran from Ceuta (Almohad era), the Sudanese Chronicles of El-Saheli of Granada, and Tarikh Al-Fattah (Chronicles of the Conquest), a 15th century book about Africa written by Africans.

How much would these books sell for? That would be a dangerous question should it occur to the Ansar Dine Islamists in Mali!

Ismael Diadie did not risk his family’s heritage. He and other Kati family members reportedly left Timbuktu with as many precious manuscripts as they could carry. History might be repeating itself as you read these lines: the manuscripts might be safely hidden somewhere outside Timbuktu. One day when and if things calm down, they might surface again, and the story of the Kati Family will again be celebrated. Until that day comes, the fate of Timbuktu’s Andalusian manuscripts remains to be a question mark.


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