The collection

The digital collection of Borno and Old Kanembu manuscripts provides an online access to one of the earliest written sub-Saharan languages in manuscript form. Old Kanembu written in Arabic script was a language of Qur’anic interpretation in the ancient Borno Sultanate. It has survived in marginal and interlinear annotations in the early Qur’an manuscripts dating from the 17th to 19th centuries and in various other religious texts dating from the 19th century to 1980’s. 

The content of the collection is being constantly updated and some items have more detailed metadata than others. Comments and suggestions can be sent to Dmitry Bondarev.

The Borno and Old Kanembu corpus originates from Qur’anic manuscripts photographed by David Bivar in 1950s and donated to the SOAS Library in 2003. The initial collection consisted of four manuscripts represented by 230 folios in photographic and microfilm form, all subsequently digitised in 2005. In 2005-2007, in the course of fieldwork conducted by Dmitry Bondarev and Abba Isa Tijani in northern Nigeria, and in 2009-2013 by Dmitry Bondarev in Nigeria, Niger and the Republic of Chad, the corpus of digitised manuscripts was substantially increased to more than 5,000 folios, including five more copies of the Qur’an and numerous other bilingual (Arabic and Old Kanembu) manuscripts. The collection now spans a period of about 400 years, from the oldest manuscripts found by Bivar (17th to early 18th centuries) to the manuscripts of a later period (18th to late 20th centuries), produced in different places in northern Nigeria, southeast Niger and west Chad. 

The digital collection of the Borno and Old Kanembu manuscripts is an outcome of three research projects: 

Early Nigerian Qur’anic manuscripts: an interdisciplinary study of the Kanuri glosses and Arabic commentaries (2005-2007, funded by AHRC) 

A study of Old Kanembu in early West African Qur’anic manuscripts and Islamic recitations (Tarjumo) in the light of Kanuri-Kanembu dialects spoken around lake Chad (2009-2011, funded by DFG and AHRC)

Writing and reading paratexts in West African Islamic manuscripts: a comparative study of commentaries on Arabic texts in Old Kanembu and Old Mande (2012-2015, funded by DFG)

Erich Kesse (Digital Library Project Officer, SOAS) has been instrumental in putting the collection online.


Historical background

Ancient Kanem and its successor Borno were the earliest Muslim states in the historical Central Sudan. The rulers of the ancient Kanem kingdom adopted Islam between the 9th to 12th centuries and by the 13th, their religious achievements had become noticeable as far as the Ayyu¯bids Egypt. The Arab historian al-Maqrizi (d. 845 H/1442 CE) tells us that in the first half of the 13th century a Kanem mai (‘ruler’ in Kanuri) – most probably Dunama Dabalemi who ruled in 606-646/1210-1248 – built the madrasa called Ibn Rashiq in Cairo for students from Kanem. This and other historical evidence shows that the ruling dynasty adopted Islam and engaged itself directly with Qur’anic education from the early Kanem period (the 12th to 14th centuries) to the Borno period of the 15th to 18th centuries. 

The main languages spoken in Kanem and Borno were closely related Kanembu and Kanuri respectively. They belong to the Saharan family of the macro Nilo-Saharan language phylum and nowadays are spoken around Lake Chad by about four million people. Historically, Kanuri developed during the westward migration (the 14th to 16th centuries) of the Kanembu speaking population from the ancient Kanem situated on the north-east of Lake Chad (the present-day Republic of Chad) to the Borno Sultanate in the east of the lake (present-day northeast Nigeria). In the course of the migration, Kanuri became the lingua franca for the territories of the Borno Sultanate. As a result, Kanembu dialects of the former Kanem territories were marginalised and are now spoken by about 10% of the whole Kanuri/Kanembu-speaking population.


With the development of Qur’anic studies in the ancient Kanem (the 13th to 14th centuries), Kanembu of the early Kanem period evolved into a language of Qur’anic interpretation. The language, known as Old Kanembu, has survived in written attestations in the commentaries to the Qur’an and, as a modernized variety known as Tarjumo, in the network of Kanuri speaking Islamic scholars who use the language as an exegetical medium. Over five centuries, Old Kanembu has been moving further southwest with the migration of the royal court and scholarly communities ('ulama') whose many rights and privileges depended on the links with the ruling dynasty. At present, Tarjumo is only actively practiced by the 'ulama' who live in the modern-day Borno state, predominantly in its capital city Maiduguri – the seat of the traditional ruler. Old Kanembu/Tarjumo has so much detached from any spoken form that it is incomprehensible to modern speakers of Kanembu and Kanuri.


Additional Reading

Book Chapters

Bondarev, Dmitry (2010) 'Complex clauses in Old Kanembu/LG.' In: Cyffer, Norbert and Ziegelmeyer, Georg, (eds.), Aspects of Co- and Subordination: Case Studies from African, Slavonic, and Turkic Languages. Cologne: Rüdiger Köpper Verlag, pp. 213-250.

Bondarev, Dmitry (2010) 'Multiglossia in West African manuscripts: The case of Borno, Nigeria.' In:Sobisch, Jan-Ulrich and Quenzer, Jörg B. and Bondarev, Dmitry, (eds.), Manuscript Cultures: Mapping the Field. De Gruyter. (Studies in Manuscript Cultures) (In Press)


Bondarev, Dmitry (2006) 'The language of the glosses in the Bornu quranic manuscripts.' Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies . pp. 113-140.

Bondarev, Dmitry (2006) 'An archaic form of Kanuri/Kanembu: a translation tool for Qur'anic Studies.'Journal of Qur'anic Studies . pp. 142-153.

Bondarev, Dmitry (2005) 'In search of the Saharan inflectional verbal paradigms in Old Kanembu.' Afrika und Übersee Special volume: Johannes Lukas (1901-1980) ‑ 25th anniversary of his death, 88 . pp. 35-51.





     AHRC - Arts and Humanities Research Council          Centre for the Study of Manscript Cultures          DFG - Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft          SOAS, University of London          Universität Hamburg