The Tombouctou Manuscript Project

A pioneering project centring a “history of the book” approach to African Arabic script manuscripts

For the academic year of 2023-2024 the CallFront project will be presenting a series of seminars and a workshop concentrated on the scripts practiced in Sub-Saharan Africa, North Africa and the Iberian Peninsula.  In building this regional pole, the pioneering work of the Tombouctou Manuscripts Project has provided an essential stepping stone to further our collaboration with calligraphers from the region as well as focus on the study of the scripts. In this blog, Susana Molins Lliteras, member of the CallFront consortium, introduces us to the main lines of work carried out by the Tombouctou manuscript project and the new perspectives which CallFront will continue to explore and develop in the wider context of calligraphies in Arabic script in other frontier regions.


The Tombouctou Manuscripts Project (TMP)[1] (University of Cape Town, UCT, South Africa), directed by Shamil Jeppie and active from 2013-2018, began with various aspects of the study of the manuscript tradition of Timbuktu, Mali. This city was a great centre of learning and was famous in West Africa and far beyond, from the 13th to the 20th centuries. Local scholars and their students recorded their scholarship – original works and copies – in manuscripts, many of which have survived to the present in different libraries and collections. Our project centred on the diverse 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. We looked at various aspects of the manuscripts, including legal and social history; scholarly elites; history of the book and book collecting; history of reading in West Africa and African Arabic calligraphy.

After a few years, the project’s scope broadened to encompass Arabic script writing cultures from other parts of the African continent, including Ethiopia, East Africa (Lamu and Mozambique) and Southern Africa. We also focused on two greatly understudied aspects of African Arabic manuscript culture: “the history of books” in Africa, and the state of the archives in which these manuscript books reside. The former aimed to place the African world of books firmly within an international discussion in the growing field of “the history of books”, where it hardly had a presence. The latter approached how archives are constituted and appropriated: the politics of the archive.

The questions animating book history in Africa strongly informed the work of the Project and rapidly became one of our main research themes. Thus, besides studying the textual content of manuscripts, we were interested in exploring the contextual issues regarding manuscript production and culture on the continent. This included reading practices, the book trade, text circulation, and scribal and literacy practices. Another cornerstone of the project was the close collaboration with colleagues, manuscript researchers, and manuscripts librarians/collectors in Africa; so, as a part of our work on this theme, we established a working group with several PhD and MA candidates from Africa and established researchers from the continent.

Our interest in scribal practices and African Arabic calligraphy animated many of our activities from 2008 onwards. One of our first major efforts was the calligraphy exhibition, From Istanbul to Timbuktu: Ink Routes[2] and the workshops and academic seminar linked to it, held in August 2009. The exhibition was co-curated by the calligrapher Nuria Garcia Masip, now a CallFront project member. One of the main aims of the exhibition and the events surrounding it was to highlight African Islamic calligraphies as part of broader Islamic art. This aim was particularly significant, given that African calligraphies are rarely included in dominant representations of Islamic calligraphic traditions. 

From Istanbul to Timbuktu: Ink Routes held at the Gold of Africa Museum, Cape Town, 7-16 August 2009 © Susana Molins Lliteras, 2009

The exhibition was accompanied by guided tours, introductory workshops on different styles of calligraphy, a class on the basic techniques of paper preparation, and an academic seminar addressing different aspects of the Islamic calligraphic tradition.

Cheick Hamou presenting at the academic seminar, From Istanbul to Timbuktu: Ink Routes, 11 August 2009 © Susana Molins Lliteras, 2009

In the next few years, we continued our focus on African calligraphies and associated themes through a series of lunchtime talks entitled “Calligraphic Africa: On the means and ends of writing,” which took place in 2011 and 2012. In August 2012, we received an AW Mellon grant to invite the renowned Moroccan calligrapher, Hamidi Belaid, to Cape Town for a period of four weeks as an artist in residence. We had two main aims with this visit. The first was for him to work through basic maghrībi lessons with the core members of the TMP team. Our thinking behind this was that understanding the manuscripts of the Timbuktu and West Africa more generally, fully meant coming to terms with the variety of their calligraphic styles. As researchers of the materials, we could advance our understanding of the manuscripts through a hands-on engagement with the practice/s of calligraphers and therefore that would help us to work through the origins or specificities of Timbuktu calligraphic styles. The second aim was for Mr Belaid to host practical calligraphy workshops open to students in the Michaelis School of Fine Art and the Centre for Curating the Archive. Both the researchers’ lessons and the practical workshops were a great success, and as a team, we greatly enhanced our understanding of how calligraphic questions and issues affect the production of manuscripts.

Hamidi Belaid’s calligraphy lessons to the TMP team, 17 August 2012 © Susana Molins Lliteras, 2012

In 2013, we had another opportunity to host a scholar in residence for four weeks, this time Mahmane Mahamoudou, known as Cheikh Hamou from Timbuktu, Mali, one of the foremost manuscript experts as well as one of the last remaining calligraphers from the town. His manuscript expertise was invaluable to the core research of the TMP. During his stay, he assisted and collaborated in the translation and interpretation of manuscripts; and gave support to our then post-doc Mauro Nobili (now at UofI and also a CallFront consortium member), on his research on West African script styles,[3] and our then PhD student Susana Molins Lliteras, on her thesis on the marginalia of Fondo Kati library.[4] His unique expertise in West African calligraphy served as a continuation of our “Calligraphic Africa” seminar series and practical workshops and contributed significantly to a major international conference held in September in Cape Town.

The TMP, in collaboration with the Centre for Contemporary Islam (CCI) at UCT and the Centre for the Study of Manuscripts Cultures in Asia, Africa and Europe (CSMC, University of Hamburg), organised the international conference Arts and Crafts of Literacy: Manuscript Cultures in Islamic Sub-Saharan Africa,[5] from 5-6 September. This landmark conference was a turning point in shifting the focus of African manuscript studies to the role of the manuscript as an object.

Over the next few years, we continued our collaborations with other institutions to bring greater attention to various aspects of this research theme.[6]

manuscript matters: (re)collections workshop participants, 31 March 2016 © Susana Molins Lliteras, 2016

A concluding significant collaboration occurred in August 2017, with our participation in an innovative training workshop focusing on “Working with African Arabic Script Manuscripts” held at Northwestern University (Evanston, Illinois USA). The workshop was hosted by ISITA (Institute for the Study of Islamic Thought in Africa), co-organised with the Centre for African Studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and sponsored by these institutions as well as the CSMC. The intense programme was divided into two parts, one geared towards training North American participants (professors, graduate students, librarians, and museum curators) on how to work with African Arabic Scripts manuscripts. The other concentrated on providing African curators of manuscript collections – from Ethiopia, Mali, Mauritania, Mozambique, Nigeria, Senegal, and Zanzibar – with practical expertise in different aspects of manuscript curation, from cataloguing and digital databases to preservation and digitisation. A unique aspect of the programme was its hands-on focus on calligraphy, with practical calligraphy workshops by Nuria Garcia Masip in the evenings, which gave participants an opportunity to experience the practicalities of writing the Arabic script calligraphy they had been discussing and reading in the morning sessions. This part of the programme culminated in an evening lecture open to the general public on “The Art of Islamic Calligraphy: Scripts and Transmission Methods” by Nuria Garcia Masip and Mohameden Ahmed Salem, covering both western and eastern Islamic lands.[7]

Thanks to the influence of our pioneering focus on the “history of the book” approach to African Arabic manuscripts, these topics are no longer neglected in the study of the manuscript cultures of the continent. This can be seen through subsequent conferences, seminars, workshops, cataloguing projects, and publications at diverse institutions worldwide.[8] As for the members of the TMP, their published work reflects many of these concerns, and is considered innovative in our field.[9] 

Taking this background into account, I am personally very excited with the collaboration with CallFront. In first place, we have been working mainly with historians and Arabists all these years, so the perspectives and insights from art historians will be particularly valuable. Secondly, the comparative aspect of CallFront, encompassing calligraphies from such diverse frontier regions, I suspect will be especially illuminating. Finally, CallFront’s innovative emphasis on praxis will bring greater depth and understanding to my new work on the practices of copying in Timbuktu and the transmission of scribal methods in the region.   

Susana Molins Lliteras


[2] We published the catalogue for the exhibition as: From Istanbul to Timbuktu: Ink Routes (Cape Town: Tombouctou Manuscripts Project, 2009).

[3] Mauro Nobili, “Arabic Scripts in West African Manuscripts: A Tentative Classification from the De Gironcourt Collection,” Islamic Africa 2/1 (2011): 105- 33. Mauro Nobili, « Écriture et Transmission Du Savoir Islamique Au Mali: Le Cas Du “Sahrâwî”, » in La Transmission Du Savoir Islamique Traditionnel Au Mali, Entre Soufisme Tijani et Écoles Coraniques, ed. Elisa Pelizzari and Omar Sylla (Torino: Harmattan Italia, 2012), 35–68. Andrea Brigaglia and Mauro Nobili, “Central Sudanic Arabic Scripts (Part 2): Barnāwī,” Islamic Africa 4/2 (2013): 195–223.

[4] Susana Molins Lliteras, “ ‘Africa starts in the Pyrenees:’ The Fondo Kati, between al-Andalus and Timbuktu,” (PhD Dissertation, University of Cape Town, 2015). Susana Molins Lliteras, “A Preliminary Appraisal of Marginalia in West African Manuscripts from the Mamma Haïdara Memorial Library Collection (Timbuktu),” in The Arts and Crafts of Literacy: Islamic Manuscript Cultures in Sub-Saharan Africa, eds. Andrea Brigaglia and Mauro Nobili (Berlin: De Gruyter, 2017), 143–78.

[5] The papers from the conference were published as, Andrea Brigaglia and Mauro Nobili, eds., The Arts and Crafts of Literacy: Islamic Manuscript Cultures in Sub-Saharan Africa, vol. 12, Studies in manuscript Cultures (Berlin: De Gruyter, 2017).

[6] Amongst the most important:  Zukunftsphilologie’s Winter Academy, “World Scripts: Concepts and Practices of Writing from a Comparative Perspective;” workshops organised by the CSMC, under the framework of events “Paroles de sagesse: les manuscrits anciens du Mali” sponsored by joint Malian-Franco-German cultural funds; and a final workshop in Cape Town in 2016 entitled “manuscript matters : (re)collections,” in collaboration with the CSMC and with the aim of inviting Africa-based researchers only.  

[7] Erin Pettigrew, “Working with African Arabic Script Manuscripts: A Workshop Report,” Islamic Africa 9/1 (2018): 107–11.

[8] See for example: Arabic-Script Manuscripts in Africa Conference, TIMA and Bibliotheca Alexandrina (12-16 September 2021,; “The Timbuktu Manuscript Training Project,” CSMC-UNESCO-MINUSMA-IHERI-ABT (2022,; Charles C. Stewart and Ahmed Chaouki Binebine, eds., Manuscripts and Arabic-script writing in Africa (The Islamic Manuscript Association and Bibliotheca Alexandrina, 2023).

[9] Shamil Jeppie, “A Timbuktu Bibliophile between the Mediterranean and the Sahel: Ahmad Bul‘arāf and the Circulation of Books in the First Half of the Twentieth Century,” Journal of North African Studies 20/1 (2015): 65–77. Shamil Jeppie, “Making Book History in Timbuktu,” in The Book in Africa. New Directions in Book History, eds. Caroline Davis and David Johnson, 83-102 (Palgrave Macmillan, London, 2015). Shamil Jeppie, “Two Examples of Sahelian Book Collectors Over Two Centuries,” in Landscapes, Sources and Intellectual Projects of the West African Past, eds. Benedetta Rossi and Toby Green, 259-274 (Leiden: Brill, 2018). Mauro Nobili, Catalogue des manuscrits arabes du fonds de Gironcourt (Afrique de l’Ouest) de l’Institut de France (Paris: Istituto per l’Oriente; Rome: C.A. Nallino, 2013). Mauro Nobili, Sultan, Caliph, and the Renewer of the Faith: Aḥmad Lobbo, the Tārīkh al-fattāsh and the Making of an Islamic State in West Africa (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2020). Susana Molins Lliteras, “Iconic Archive: Timbuktu and its manuscripts in public discourse,” in Babel Unbound: Rage, reason and rethinking public life, eds. Lesley Cowling and Carolyn Hamilton, 144-82 (Johannesburg: Wits University Press, 2020). Susana Molins Lliteras, “The making of a local historian in Timbuktu: The signed marginalia attributed to Maḥmūd Ka‘ti in the Fondo Kati collection,” in Scribal Practice and the Global Cultures of Colophons, 1400-1800 (Series New Transculturalisms, 1400–1800) eds. Christopher Bahl and Stefan Hanß, 133-54 (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2022).

Citer ce billet
callfront (2023, 13 novembre). The Tombouctou Manuscript Project. CallFront. Consulté le 17 juin 2024, à l’adresse

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