Publication Announcement: Catalogue of de Gironcourt Collection of Manuscripts

20 May 2014

Mauro Nobili

Nobili, Mauro.  Catalogue des Manuscrits Arabes du Fonds de Gironcourt (Afrique de l’Ouest) de l’Institut de France.  Rome, Instituto per l’Oriente C. A. Nallino, 2013.

During the biennium 1908-9, the French agronomist George de Gironcourt (1878-1960) conducted an exploration of the Niger Bend in the French Sudan – modern Republic of Mali. In the course of this mission, de Gironcourt ‘discovered’ a large burial site in Bentia, the ancient sit of the Songhay ‘Medieval’ State, comprising several inscriptions in Arabic. With the support of the Ministère des Colonies, the Ministère de l’Instruction Publique and the Académie des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres, he went back to West Africa in November 1911 for a new mission which eventually kept him in the region for more than one year, exploring the territories of the modern states of Mali, Niger, Nigeria and Cameroon. His aim was to collect a corpus of Arabic inscriptions from the area, a task that he achieved by producing 812 estampages of inscriptions in both Arabic and Tifinagh alphabet. In addition to this, de Gironcourt sent back to the Académie des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres 142 Arabic manuscripts (and a few in French) eventually bound together in Paris to form 12 codices. This codices forms a collection known today as the Fonds de Gironcourt which kept me busy for the past seven years of my academic life.

The collection, hosted by the library of the Institut de France, to which the Académie des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres is part of, has been known to scholars since the 1920s but it has hardly attracted scholarly attention, with exception of some short presentations by Abdlullahi Smith, John O. Hunwick and Hassan I. Gwarzo.

In 2007 I first put my hands on the de Gironcourt manuscripts during my PhD research and I immediately understood the relevance of the collection. I then started an inventory of the manuscripts which was attached as an appendix to my PhD thesis obtained in 2008 at the Department of Arab and African Studies of the University of Naples (Italy). I then expanded the appendix into a full scale catalogue which has been recently published within the Series Catalogorum of the Istituto per l’Oriente C.A. Nallino (Roma) and the CNRS – Mondes Iranien et Indien (Paris).

The catalogue comprises a long introductory essay devoted to the written culture of the Niger Bend, to the formation of the de Gironcourt collection, to the main topics covered by the texts, to some codicological features of West African manuscripts, and to the mission that de Gironcourt conducted in West Africa. The catalogue properly speaking describes in detail the 142 Arabic manuscripts of the collection, analysed in their physical dimension, i.e. the object manuscript, and their intellectual contents, i.e. the text that they preserve. The description notes are arranged in a thematic order (History, Religious Renewal, Eschatology, Mysticism, Law, Geography, Sermon, Esoteric Sciences, Belles-lettres, Correspondence, and Multi-thematic manuscripts). Among these manuscripts are several relevant works of West African scholars, among which is an old copy of the Timbuktu chronicle the Tarikh al-Sudan by the 17th century scholar ‘Abd al-Rahman al-Sa‘di dated 1769 – the oldest known copy of this work. The collection also includes a number of notes written down under de Gironcourt’s request by local scholars and chiefs, manuscripts extant only in the de Gironcourt collection whose study will bring to light important aspects of the history of different populations encountered by French explorer during his West African journey, from Peul to Songhay, from Tuareg to Berbers, from Saharan Arabs to Hausa, whose history is still poorly documented.

The catalogue is also equipped with a map of the places visited by de Gironcourt, several black and white pictures of manuscripts, six colour plates of manuscripts, and twelve reproductions of photos taken by de Gironcourt during his trip. The catalogue also includes several indexes (titles, authors, senders and recipients of letters, copyists, owners, places of copy, dates of copy, places of production, seals etc…) crucial to navigate such a rich collection as the Fonds de Gironcourt.

My hope is that the publication of the catalogue will stimulate the interest of scholars to work again on the de Gironcourt manuscripts and to spend some time studying these important works on West African history in the elegant and majestic library of the Institut de France.

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