In 2012, Islamist militants attacked Timbuktu, Mali and destroyed 14 of the 16 mausoleums that are part of the World Heritage site. Timbuktu was a center of Islamic learning from 1100 – 1600 AD, rivalling the universities in Cairo and Baghdad. Militants didn’t just rip down buildings, they burned books. Books that contained historical accounts and Islamic teachings to which the militants objected. Because they didn’t like what the books said, they decided that no one should be able to read them.
But before the Islamist militants drove into Timbuktu to destroy it, residents rescued some of the books. Priceless manuscripts were crated up, loaded on rickety boats and sailed down the Niger River to safety. In the Malian capital of Bamako, an international team immediately began photographing and scanning the books to save digital versions.
Saving the books of Timbuktu is just one example of what some are calling the second Renaissance. Every major library in the world, from universities to the Library of Congress to the British Museum are creating digital copies of their collections and making them available to anyone with an internet connection. Many of these efforts are done in partnership with Google, IBM and Microsoft who have the money and technical expertise in digitizing collections.
Digitizing books and priceless manuscripts is often done using multispectral imaging which uses different wavelengths of light to see details invisible to the naked eye. It was developed by NASA to take satellite images through cloud cover but is excellent at capturing high resolution images of manuscripts. It can detect layers of images.
In medieval times, it was common to reuse parchment. A scribe or monk would scrape off the old ink, the medieval equivalent of erasing, and write a new text. The original images can now be seen with multispectral imaging, which is how the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore discovered two treatises by Archimedes underneath the prayers in a 13th century prayerbook.
X-rays and CAT scans are also being used to digitally unroll scrolls that were turned into charcoal at Pompeii in 79 AD. Scholars are beginning to read the same texts once read by the rich and famous Romans who owned vacation homes by the bay. What once seemed lost, isn’t.
Which brings us back to the Islamist militants who tried to destroy Timbuktu’s books because the texts contradicted their narrow, bigoted view of the world. Someday soon, an archaeologist will recover the burned manuscripts of Timbuktu and technology will help us read the texts. Ideas can’t be killed.
About Norma Shirk
My company, Corporate Compliance Risk Advisor, helps employers (with up to 50 employees) to create human resources policies and employee benefit programs that are appropriate to the employer’s size and budget. The goal is to help small companies grow by creating the necessary back office administrative structure while avoiding the dead weight of a bureaucracy. To read my musings on the wacky world of human resources, see the HR Compliance Jungle (www.hrcompliancejungle.com) which alternates on Wednesday mornings with my history blog, History By Norma, (available at http://www.normashirk.com). To read my musings on a variety of topics, see my posts on Her Savvy (www.hersavvy.com).
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