Skip to page navigation menu Skip entire header
Brown University
Skip 13 subheader links

Magic, divination and digitization: the exploration of a Timbuktu manuscript


The focus of our project is a unique Arabic manuscript that originates from Timbuktu and dates back to the late 18th or early 19th century, a transitional period preceding formal colonialism and following the golden age of this Sub-Saharan center of scholarship and learning. The manuscripts of Timbuktu have been threatened by time, the elements, and war, most recently in the Northern Mali conflict. Close study of the remaining Timbuktu manuscripts could significantly advance our understanding of religious and cultural life in pre-colonial Mali, as well as the development of Islamic and West African pre-modern scholarship more broadly. The objective of our project was therefore to make the manuscript's contents available to scholars worldwide through digitization and interpretation. This firstly required ordering the unbound pages of the manuscript by manipulating high-resolution photographs on a large display wall. The second phase of our work involved categorizing and analyzing the illustrations and text, the results of which would serve as a basis for our own set of research questions as well as the specific inquiries of scholars accessing the digital manuscript online. Lastly, we initiated the transcription and translation of the more legible sections of text. We found that the manuscript belongs to a tradition of esoteric sciences related to Islamic scholarship in the region. Comprised of five distinct but related texts written in the same hand, the manuscript contains numerous spells or "crecipes" for magic and divination, as well as over 200 illustrations including magic squares, circular seals, and geometric patterns. In addition to the prophets Muhammad and Jesus, the prophet Moses and members of his family feature prominently in the text, and are evoked in over ten consecutive pages of Qur'anic excerpts.


Lamb, Katherine, "Magic, divination and digitization: the exploration of a Timbuktu manuscript " (2015). Summer Research Symposium. Brown Digital Repository. Brown University Library.



  • Summer Research Symposium

    Each year, Brown University showcases the research of its undergraduates at the Summer Research Symposium. More than half of the student-researchers are UTRA recipients, while others receive funding from a variety of Brown-administered and national programs and fellowships and go …