Northwestern Events Calendar


Iconic Archive: Timbuktu and its Manuscripts in Public Discourse (Susana Molins Lliteras)

When: Wednesday, November 13, 2019
12:00 PM - 1:15 PM Central

Where: 620 Library Place, Rm 106, Evanston, IL 60208 map it

Audience: Faculty/Staff - Student - Public - Post Docs/Docs - Graduate Students

Contact: Rebecca Shereikis   (847) 491-2598

Group: Institute for the Study of Islamic Thought in Africa (ISITA)

Co-Sponsor: Program of African Studies

Category: Lectures & Meetings


Join the Institute for the Study of Islamic Thought in Africa (ISITA) and the Program of African Studies as we provide lunch and a lecture.

Iconic Archive: Timbuktu and its Manuscripts in Public Discourse

Susana Molins Lliteras, Historical Studies, University of Cape Town


Timbuktu has recently become synonymous with a very specific type of heritage—the pre-colonial written tradition in Sub-Saharan Africa associated with the manuscript legacy of Islamic West Africa—although an older association of the city as an impossible-to-reach, almost mythical location still lingers in popular imagination. In the last decades, the African Arabic written legacy of West Africa has popularly become known in public discourse as the ‘Timbuktu archive,’ whether as a source for the history of the region in the pre-colonial and colonial periods or whether contemplated as a heritage phenomenon in the present.  

This paper demonstrates that Timbuktu and its manuscripts have become the ‘iconic archive’ used to signify indigenous African writing and knowledge production before the advent of colonialism. It traces and examines the evolving and competing ideas and narratives that emerged and were mobilised about Timbuktu and its manuscripts in the longue durée, in African, Western and Islamic contexts and concentrates on aspects of the history of the Timbuktu archive that elucidate its public potency. The paper analyses the publicness of the Timbuktu archive from the distant past, through the era of European exploration and colonialism, to the present. It argues that understanding the manuscripts of Timbuktu as iconic archive is a useful entry point into the untangling of and reflection on the changing and evolving narratives of this archive in public discourse, as well as on modalities of knowledge production in and about Timbuktu. 


Susana Molins Lliteras is a Post-Doctoral Fellow based at the Archive and Public Culture Research Initiative and the Historical Studies Department at the University of Cape Town (South Africa).  For the last decade, she has been a researcher and coordinator at the Tombouctou Manuscripts Project (, and an integral part of the Project's events and output, organising conferences, workshops and seminars on West African book and manuscript history.  Her current book project, based on her doctoral dissertation, presents an archival biography the Fondo Kati, a private family manuscript collection in Timbuktu, elucidating how historical knowledge in and about Timbuktu is continuously produced, reproduced and refashioned.  She has published on the archives of Timbuktu and on the social history of a West African Sufi movement in South Africa.  

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