The Hidden Treasures of Timbuktu

The Hidden Treasures of Timbuktu

Historic City of Islamic Africa

  1. John O. Hunwick
  2. Alida Jay Boye
See Inside
  • ISBN 9780500514214
  • 32.00 x 24.00 cm
  • Hardback
  • 176pp
  • 193 Illustrations, 193 in colour
  • First published 2008

For centuries, camel caravans made epic journeys across the Sahara to reach the legendary city of Timbuktu, where they traded salt, gold, slaves, textiles and books – books that were threatened with destruction by the militant Islamic invaders of northern Mali, finally expelled in 2013.

See a slideshow of images from the book or click on 'See Inside' above


By the mid-fifteenth century, Timbuktu had become a major centre of Islamic literary culture and scholarship, attracting scholars from as far away as the Arabian Peninsula. Students came to learn at the feet of Timbuktu’s masters of law, literature and the sciences. The city’s libraries were repositories of all the world’s learning, housing not only works by Arab and Islamic writers but also volumes from the classical Greek and Roman worlds and studies by contemporary scholars.

The astonishing manuscripts of Timbuktu reveal great craftsmanship as well as learning. Their unbound sheets were often protected by a loose leather cover tied with a leather lace. All were written in the Arabic script, but they also feature a range of local African languages.

The surviving manuscripts include a wealth of correspondence between rulers, advisers and merchants on subjects as various as taxation, commerce, marriage, divorce, adoption, breastfeeding and prostitution, providing a vivid insight into the ordinary life and values of the day.

Timbuktu’s oldest families, custodians of these treasures generation after generation, managed to hide the majority of them from the Islamic militants who were finally expelled in early 2013, a measure of the loving care they have always received against all threats and a measure of their cultural importance as testament to a great centre of learning and civilization at the heart of Africa.

Although Timbuktu is a World Heritage Site, this book stands as a permanent record in a fragile world of a remarkable human cultural achievement.

John O. Hunwick has devoted a lifetime of scholarship to the history, culture and literature of Islamic Africa. His extensive research and writings have made him a world authority in the field. Alida Jay Boye is co-founder and coordinator of the University of Oslo’s Timbuktu Manuscripts Project. Joseph Hunwick has made many journeys to Timbuktu, following in his father’s footsteps. His images brilliantly capture the faded majesty of the city and the dignity and warmth of its modern-day inhabitants.