Mediaeval Arabic Manuscripts in Private Libraries in Mauritania
July 27, 2010 5:18 PM   Subscribe

Ancient books inherited in private family libraries could change our knowledge of late mediaeval arab culture, but most are hidden in private libraries. Gripping article about the unknown treasures that may be lurking in Mauritanian family libraries, considering the little that has already been found, resistance to cataloguing and problematic future if the region continues to be destabilised. How the manuscripts are famous in the muslim world.More on the open libraries and archive efforts. Some years back on bbc i saw an explorer track down some ancient ethiopian christian manuscripts to an ethiopian monastery, only to be shown some burnt remains from a fire a few months back. What treasures must lurk in this continent, and with digital cameras, how easy to document them without damage or intruding on their owners! Being christians, there are pictures and some history.
posted by maiamaia (13 comments total) 35 users marked this as a favorite
OK, that Ethiopian illuminated bible is straight out of some alternate reality. Beautiful.
posted by GuyZero at 5:28 PM on July 27, 2010

What does one's religious belief have to do with taking digital photos and posting them online?

Oh, wait. Sorry. Misunderstood. Nevermind.
posted by hippybear at 5:37 PM on July 27, 2010

The Bibliodyssey blog is usually referred to on MetaFilter as being by 'Metafilter's own' peacay! Great stuff, always ...
posted by woodblock100 at 5:41 PM on July 27, 2010

Islam saved civilization's knowledge from the Christian Dark Ages.

Then they let it go 1000 years ago, never yet to return.

Beautiful post.
posted by four panels at 6:05 PM on July 27, 2010

Gorgeous imagery. Thanks for posting this.
posted by immlass at 6:22 PM on July 27, 2010

Man, I have spent too much time in Chinguetti. Funny though, never going to the libraries. Of course they're not immediately accessible if you don't speak Arabic.

I wouldn't place a lot of hope in cultural preservation though in this case. Mauritania is seriously one of the most backwards countries in West Africa. The only thing that saves it from being an overwhelming corrupt dictatorship is that it's also ridiculously inefficient.

The hesitation to give out the documents is simply a monetary one. The idea of the "common good" doesn't really apply here, and if you want to motivate people to loan their documents for scanning, these organizations need to offer cash incentives. It would be expensive but money talks, especially when people have very little.
posted by iamck at 6:52 PM on July 27, 2010 [2 favorites]

It still amazes me how much knowledge has been lost to history, and the manner in which what little has survived was passed along to us. For instance, I was recently on a Wikipedia link-frenzy that began as I was looking for historical examples of human longevity. Turns out the Greek mathematician Eratosthenes lived to be about 80. But that wasn't the interesting thing. Eratosthenes is one of those historical poly-geniuses: he invented geography; he invented longitude & latitude; he came up with an ingenious method for determining prime numbers; and (perhaps most amazingly) he calculated the first accurate circumference of the Earth and distance of the Earth to the Sun. He did all of this around 200 B.C.

But that's not the interesting thing, either. The interesting thing is, the only reason we even know about this guy is because this other dude named Nicomachus referenced the prime-number trick in his own Arithmetic 101 textbook a hundred years later (and the only reason we know about that book is because this other dude translated it into Latin about 200 years later), and this guy happened to mention the earth circumference technique in one of his own books.

Crazy shit.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 8:05 PM on July 27, 2010 [7 favorites]

Islam saved civilization's knowledge from the Christian Dark Ages.
European civilization's knowledge, but even then, the Islamic world did more than hold onto it. The Islamic world carried on its own philosophical, scientific, and political projects influenced by the ancient Greeks (among others). Ibn Rushd, also known as Averroes, may have made the most significant contribution in his argument that religion and philosophy both reached the same truth, though philosophy may be better suited to the task. This is the seed of early Enlightenment philosophy, planted in the middle ages.
posted by Marty Marx at 8:05 PM on July 27, 2010 [4 favorites]

The thought of all of these texts, all of these documents, all of these wonderful potential gems of knowledge makes my mouth literally water. Not just at the careers of future researchers that will be made by examining them, but at the possibility for knowledge that is unknown by all but a few coming to public - or at least western academic - light. Seriously, my palms got sweaty and I got a bit light headed just thinking about being able to visit just ONE of these collections.

Yeah, ok, I'm a historian. I give in.
posted by strixus at 8:24 PM on July 27, 2010

There's a similar Sufi library in Tamegroute in Morocco.
posted by carter at 9:28 PM on July 27, 2010

posted by lslelel at 8:42 AM on July 28, 2010

Islam saved civilization's knowledge from the Christian Dark Ages.

If you're talking greek and latin classics, that's not really true. Leaving aside texts that survived in western Europe, a great deal survived in Byzantium (even after the 1204 crusading sack of Constantinople), and brought west as the Ottomans expanded. The siege of Constantinople (1453) coincided nicedly with the invention of the printing press and pretty soon you have the rebirth of classical learning.

It's an involved history, but by the time of the renaissance, the translations from Greek classics to Arabic to Latin were superceded by original manuscripts. Absent Islam, the corpus we now have would be no smaller than it is.

And there is still hope of further classical texts lying in the sands of Egypt.

(NB I'm not discussing the evolution of medieval philosophy, I'm talking strictly transmission of texts.)
posted by IndigoJones at 9:11 AM on July 28, 2010

File sharing.
posted by mrgrimm at 10:57 AM on July 28, 2010 [1 favorite]

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