The Library of Congress and the Smithsonian Institution have opened an exhibit titled "Ancient Manuscripts from the Desert Libraries of Timbuktu," the famous trading town at the edge of the Sahara Desert in Mali. The manuscripts include Qur'anic teachings, mathematics, physics, medicine, and astronomy.
But this may be just the tip of the iceberg. According to Abdelkader Haidara, executive director of Timbuktu's Mamma Haidara Commemorative Library, there may be a million such manuscripts in the 22 private libraries of Timbuktu, most of them held by descendants of the original owners. Looking beyond that city to the rest of Mali and to neighboring countries such as Mauritania, Niger, and Burkina Faso, Haidara estimates that there may be 100 libraries with five million manuscripts. Some of the manuscripts had been buried to protect them from the wars that ravaged the area prior to European colonization.
James H. Billington, Librarian of Congress, noting that medieval Arabic medicine was far ahead of European practices, suggested that some of these manuscripts might shed light on the history of diseases that originated in Africa, such as HIV and ebola. (See the article posted at http://www.sciscoop.com/story/2003/6/26/7135/87226.) !