Libraries of Timbuktu Project
Timbuktu Libraries Project
NewScientist article: Stars of the Sahara
* 15 August 2007
* NewScientist.com news service
* Curtis Abraham
IT DOESN'T look like much today, just a faded outpost on the edge of the Sahara, but back in the 15th century Timbuktu was the height of luxury and sophistication. Traders made their way across the baking desert to sell gold, ivory, slaves and salt, and scholars gathered to trade books and exchange ideas. Explorers left the city with tales of unlimited gold and a king so wealthy that on one visit to Egypt he caused the price of gold to crash with his extravagant gifts.
Timbuktu's heyday wasn't to last. In 1591, the city, in what is now Mali, was invaded by people from Morocco claiming a slice of its riches. They raided schools and universities, and banished teachers and their manuscripts. Only a fraction of the writings survived, remaining hidden for generations in trunks or buried within the thick mud walls of mosques.
Now a team of researchers from South Africa and Mali are analysing the Timbuktu manuscripts to find out what the scholars knew about science. In just a handful of the documents translated so far they have overturned the received wisdom about early African science and astronomy. The scholars of Timbuktu, they have discovered, were way ahead of their time.
The earliest western astronomical ideas developed in ancient Mesopotamia - now Iraq - but studies of the stars were a part of many other ancient civilisations, including those of India, China, Greece and Mesoamerica. Islamic scholars in the Middle East were heavily influenced by Greek texts and this, along with original research by Islamic scientists between the 8th and 16th centuries, went on to inform European scientists during the Renaissance. Before the study of the Timbuktu manuscripts began, though, sub-Saharan Africa was thought to have been out of the loop .
"Until we thought of this project, the common belief among western scientists was that Africans only began studying science after the arrival of Europeans in our continent,"
says Thebe Medupe, an astrophysicist at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, and the project's lead researcher. " We can now say with confidence that sub-Saharan Africans were studying mathematics and astronomy over 300 years ago."
The Timbuktu manuscripts are also a testament to the continent's little-known written academic heritage. "Africa has for too long been stereotyped as the continent of song and dance, where knowledge is only transmitted orally," says John Hunwick of the Institute for the Study of Islamic Thought in Africa at Northwestern University, Illinois.
Although many of the manuscripts have been lost or stolen over the centuries, the researchers have plenty to work with. Many of them - 18,000 or more - are housed in the Ahmed Baba Centre, in the only public library in Timbuktu. Twenty-seven more are held in the city's Mamma Haidara Library, a further 32 are in the libraries of the Al Furqan Foundation in Tamale, Ghana. Yet more are held in private collections. They date from the 13th century to the Moroccan invasion and beyond, and 37 are known to deal with astronomy and astrology.
Until last year, though, the scientific secrets of the manuscripts remained untold. In February 2006 Medupe and colleagues at the University of Cape Town and the University of Bamako in Mali began an ambitious project to translate the manuscripts and analyse them for scientific content. Previous studies have focused on the literary and cultural relevance of the manuscripts; this was the first time anyone had looked at their scientific relevance.
The researchers wanted to know whether the Timbuktu scholars understood key concepts, such as that the Earth is round and that it revolves around the sun. They were also keen to find out what mathematical knowledge and instruments the scholars had access to, whether they recorded events such as meteor showers, comets and eclipses, and what they made of them. Finally, they wondered whether scholars in Timbuktu took advantage of the strong trade links to share ideas with people living in centres of medieval Islamic science such as Baghdad, Spain and north Africa.
It was a daunting prospect. While most of the manuscripts are in Arabic, some are in less widely spoken indigenous languages such as Songhai and Hausa. Most lack punctuation and many are missing crucial pages or front covers. So far Medupe and his colleagues have translated just 14 of the thousands of manuscripts held in the archives of the Ahmed Baba Centre, but even these few have thrown up many surprises.
Far from relying on discoveries being brought to them with the first western scientists, the scholars of Timbuktu were building their own body of knowledge. One manuscript, written in 1723, is a commentary by Timbuktu scholar Abul Abbas on much earlier work by other scholars in the city. Three hundred years after the Copernican revolution in Europe, which placed the sun at the centre of our solar system, the text describes a Greek-influenced geocentric, or Earth-centred, model of the universe. This was strong evidence that astronomers in Timbuktu were not in contact with their European counterparts at this time.
The Timbuktu astronomers did, however, share ideas with scholars in other Muslim areas, particularly in western north Africa, according to Benno van Dalen of the Institute for the History of Science in Frankfurt, Germany, who is a collaborator on the project. "The manuscripts show certain methods, for instance when it comes to calendar conversion and the use of the Julian calendar, which are found in other western Islamic sources, but not in eastern ones," he says.
While they may have got it wrong about the motion of the planets, the manuscript reveals that the scholars had precise methods for defining the Islamic calendar, including algorithms on how to determine leap years. The algorithms were as accurate as anything mathematicians have today, as Medupe found when he tested them against the modern, computer-based approach. "These people were very knowledgeable about the subject they wrote about," he says.
Other manuscripts dating back 600 years include beautifully drawn diagrams of the orbits of planets, which demonstrate the use of complex mathematical calculations. There are also recordings of astronomical events, including a meteor shower in August 1583. Another manuscript discusses the use of an astronomical instrument to determine the direction of Mecca. Taken together, these findings push back the study of science in Africa by over 300 years.
Along with a general thirst for knowledge, the Muslim scholars of Timbuktu would also have had particular reasons to be interested in astronomy. First is the requirement for Muslims to pray, and to orient their mosques in the direction of Mecca. To achieve this, they needed to develop algorithms and instruments to determine the exact position of both Mecca and Timbuktu. There was also the need to determine exact times for prayers at sunrise, noon, afternoon, sunset and evening. The scholars found ancient Greek methods of doing this very cumbersome, the researchers say, but Muslim astronomers devised easier solutions by inventing the cosine, tangent, cotangent, secant and cosecant functions of trigonometry.
Another reason for the early scholars to get to grips with the stars was their desire to use them to make astrological predictions. "Knowledge of the motions of the planets, the importance of predicting where they will be, and where they were, was motivated by astrology," says Brian Warner, also of the University of Cape Town. The need for reliable astrological predictions also justified the construction of observatories and the compilation of astronomical handbooks.
There may be many surprises in store, hidden in the thousands of manuscripts that have not yet been analysed and in the large collection of Islamic writings found through much of west Africa and sub-Saharan Africa. "The most amazing part of this is that the study of Islamic science in the past in Africa may be more widespread than we think," says Medupe. "These ancient manuscripts are found not only in Timbuktu, but in many older cities in Mali, the neighbouring countries of west Africa, and all the way to the east in Sudan and as far south as Tanzania, I believe." The researchers hope that they may also find important texts that have been lost from other parts of the Islamic world.
With barely a dent made in the Timbuktu manuscripts, the team are in a race against time. Over the centuries, the documents have been subjected to the ravages of temperature fluctuations, humidity, dust and grit, and many of the texts, written on delicate paper, are beginning to disintegrate. While conservationists race to save the manuscripts, Medupe's team plans to expand the project next year to cover botany, medicine, biology, chemistry, mathematics and climatology.
For Medupe, just finding evidence of early science in Africa has been a huge achievement. He hopes it will not only give the scholars of Timbuktu their rightful place in science history, but also inspire the next generation of African scientists. "I believe that one of the reasons sub-Saharan Africans are under-represented in science is because they do not see themselves in the science books they read," says Medupe. Now perhaps they will.
Curtis Abraham is a freelance journalist based in Kampala, Uganda
From issue 2617 of New Scientist magazine, 15 August 2007, page 39-41