Mali: Timbuktu Locals Saved Some of City’s Ancient Manuscripts from Islamists

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ERIC FEFERBERG / AFP / Getty Images

Malian soldiers enter the historic city of Timbuktu on Jan. 28, 2013

The preservationists of Timbuktu’s centuries-old artifacts have been holding their breath for weeks, waiting for the moment when the French military would seize back Mali’s ancient northern capital from the Islamic militants who have occupied it for 10 months. At stake were the city’s most precious treasures: tens of thousands of centuries-old, priceless calligraphed manuscripts, whose fate under the jihadists’ rule was deeply uncertain.

On Monday, that moment finally came — and by nightfall, the state of Timbuktu’s treasures was as confused as it had been before.

(MORE: Why Islamists Want to Destroy Timbuktu’s Treasures)

When Malian and French soldiers rolled into town in armored vehicles early Monday, they found what the preservationists had most dreaded: Timbuktu’s new Ahmed Baba Institute, an expensive adobe construction opened in 2010 — the city’s splashiest international project in years — had been torched by militants of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb last Thursday as they prepared to flee the French advance. From Bamako, Timbuktu’s Mayor Hallé Ousmane Cissé, who had fled his city nearly four weeks ago, told journalists that the militants had burned the center’s collection of about 40,000 ancient manuscripts, some of the 300,000 or so historic documents stashed in libraries in Timbuktu and the villages around it, mostly as family heirlooms. “The manuscripts were a part not only of Mali’s heritage but the world’s heritage,” Cissé told the Guardian. “By destroying them, they threaten the world. We have to kill all of the rebels in the north.” Reporting from inside the Timbuktu building itself, Sky News correspondent Alex Crawford told viewers that the jihadists had destroyed the center’s contents. Meanwhile, Cissé was quoted on the network’s website as saying, “They torched all the important ancient manuscripts.”

That is not so, according to those who’ve worked for months to keep the documents safe.

In interviews with TIME on Monday, preservationists said that in a large-scale rescue operation early last year, shortly before the militants seized control of Timbuktu, thousands of manuscripts were hauled out of the Ahmed Baba Institute to a safe house elsewhere. Realizing that the documents might be prime targets for pillaging or vindictive attacks from Islamic extremists, staff left behind just a small portion of them, perhaps out of haste, but also to conceal the fact that the center had been deliberately emptied. “The documents which had been there are safe, they were not burned,” said Mahmoud Zouber, Mali’s presidential aide on Islamic affairs, a title he retains despite the overthrow of the former President, his boss, in a military coup a year ago; preserving Timbuktu’s manuscripts was a key project of his office. By phone from Bamako on Monday night, Zouber told TIME, “They were put in a very safe place. I can guarantee you. The manuscripts are in total security.”

In a second interview from Bamako, a preservationist who did not want to be named confirmed that the center’s collection had been hidden out of reach from the militants. Neither of those interviewed wanted the location of the manuscripts named in print, for fear that remnants of the al-Qaeda occupiers might return to destroy them.

(MORE: The history of Timbuktu, an Ancient Cultural Crossroads)

That was confirmed too by Shamil Jeppie, director of the Timbuktu Manuscripts Project at the University of Cape Town, who told TIME on Monday night that “there were a few items in the Ahmed Baba library, but the rest were kept away.” The center, financed by the South African government as a favored project by then President Thabo Mbeki, who championed reviving Africa’s historical culture, housed state-of-the-art equipment to preserve and photograph hundreds of thousands of pages, some of which had gold illumination, astrological charts and sophisticated mathematical formulas. Jeppie said he had been enraged by the television footage on Monday of the building trashed, and blamed in part Mali’s government, which he said had done little to ensure the center’s security. “It is really sad and disturbing,” he said.

When TIME reached Timbuktu’s Mayor Cissé in Bamako late Monday night, he tempered the remarks he had made to journalists earlier in the day, conceding in an interview that, indeed, residents had worked to rescue the center’s manuscripts before al-Qaeda occupied the city last March. Still, he said that while many of the manuscripts had been saved, “they did not move all the manuscripts.” He said he had fled earlier this month after living through months of the Islamists’ rule, a situation he described as a “true catastrophe” and “very, very hard.” He said he expects to fly back home by the weekend on a French military jet. By then, perhaps, the state of Timbuktu’s astonishing historic libraries might be clearer.

PHOTOS: War in Mali: France and African Allies Take on Islamist Militants

154 comments
weddady
weddady

@somalianalyst thank u. they saved most of them, not all.

jenanmoussa
jenanmoussa

@renesugar true around 90 percent but that doesn't exclude the fact that a nb (figures not precise but around 2000) were burned!

vivwalt
vivwalt

@InigoGilmore thanks mate ! you're quite the rock star yourself.

paulageraghty
paulageraghty

@Pimlids that is indeed very very good news. Thank you!

UOJim
UOJim

@TheAlexKnapp Paging Dan Brown.

massivegenius2
massivegenius2

@ronanfitz22 @richardwaghorne faultless logic & perception. Arabised Islamists burn down a building in a Saharan warzone, Africa criticised

GlobalTradeBlog
GlobalTradeBlog

@TIMEWorld reporting so-called "Islamist" bombing a Mali library containing some of the world's oldest Qurans #REWIND @HistoryHeroes

massivegenius2
massivegenius2

@ronanfitz22 @richardwaghorne faultless logic & perception. Arabised Islamists burn down a building in a Saharan warzone, he blames "Africa"

Tuumaru
Tuumaru

@samklai Hope so, and that they get them back in controlled (and safe!) environment soon! Fragile things.

slopingsite
slopingsite

@RichardDawkins So these will doubtless be religious manuscripts? <g>

wamuguru
wamuguru

I fail to imagine the loss-that was felt and still is- as a result of the great Alexandrian library disaster after all these a thousand-plus years!

MarloRocci
MarloRocci

@RichardDawkins Their goal is to remove any sign of history outside of Islam. I expect the great pyramids will be next to be blown up.

CAmmoun
CAmmoun

@claudineaziz I don't know some might be saved. But as long as one human is capable of burning one 300y-old manuscript. Really I don't know.

swirlOsquirrel
swirlOsquirrel

@RichardDawkins Thankfully. Just hate to see a loss of cultural history to such fearful ignorance. Book burning/destroying the past is daft.

anotherMujahid
anotherMujahid

@tommymiles Does anyone really believe this fairytale? Come on...first they were burned, now safe, next they will be in #France on black mkt

TpPower
TpPower

That's really a great news, one of my biggest worries apart from the people of Mali lives @okayafrica

JasonBonsall
JasonBonsall

@RichardDawkins A sad sad day when a victory is saving 1% or less of history.

ZapHS2
ZapHS2

@RichardDawkins That could only becasue train has to slow down missing the wealthy bits of uncle George's constituency.

soccerreform
soccerreform

@pritheworld Makes me wonder how much of the US Soccer Hall of Fame has been saved.

aethelflaed
aethelflaed

@Aisling_Gheal @PaddyofNazareth agreed. Nothing but gormless adolescents dressing up their dumb vandalism in bogus godwittery.

Socteach
Socteach

@RichardDawkins Would love to comment but you have some strange followers who attack the free speech of others - so, I won't :-) Hail RD!

AndrewCrines
AndrewCrines

@RichardDawkins Awful events, and highly damaging. Agora repeated yet again?

coumbabang72
coumbabang72

@InnovateAfrica @texasinafrica My understanding: various libraries and mosques, tombs + thave been desecrated and burned.

Ifjuju
Ifjuju

Yee hah ! I may be an atheist, but this is the kind of thing that makes me nearly believe in God ! Shame that some manuscripts might have been destroyed. I actually have a printed edition of a Timbuktu manuscript at home, which really does give you a sense of loss at what the Barbarians burned.

JamalOuariachi
JamalOuariachi

@RicharddeNooy Geruststellend, ergens. Maar de vernietigingsdrang van die freaks blijft verontrustend...

somalianalyst
somalianalyst

@weddady Most saved is better than most not saved :)

renesugar
renesugar

@jenanmoussa Have they considered scanning the remaining documents and making them available to universities? http://t.co/ZlvSHVhE

Pimlids
Pimlids

@paulageraghty It is; but did you see the other article I linked to. The Taliban plan to destroy every sufi shrine in Timbuktu.

Pimlids
Pimlids

@paulageraghty Indeed.

samklai
samklai

@Tuumaru Yes! All the more reason to root for digitisation as conservation too. Not only 3rd world either http://t.co/gzZK9fCs

claudineaziz
claudineaziz

@CAmmoun our capacities as humans for creativity & destruction continue to battle ... I share ur desolation

PaddyofNazareth
PaddyofNazareth

@aethelflaed @aisling_gheal fundamentalist infallibility,literal interpretation of fairytale scripture,a means of control for political ends

RicharddeNooy
RicharddeNooy

@JamalOuariachi Onderaan dat Wiki-verhaal staan links naar een docu in drie delen. Er zijn honderden familiebibliotheken. Intrigerend.

RicharddeNooy
RicharddeNooy

@JamalOuariachi The manuscripts had to do with art, medicine, science, and calligraphy and even multiple priceless old copies of the Quran.

RicharddeNooy
RicharddeNooy

@JamalOuariachi Wat staat er eigenlijk in die boeken? Dat hebben ze dan wel weer voor elkaar gekregen: ik wil meer weten. Ik ga zoeken.

vivwalt
vivwalt

Horrifying witness accounts from marikana massacre #SouthAfrica by @InigoGilmore. Dismaying blot on my homeland.http://t.co/GwXa1BYR

paulageraghty
paulageraghty

@Pimlids it's too painful to read such intent.

Tuumaru
Tuumaru

@samklai Yes, I remember that one :( Digitise everything, please!

Pimlids
Pimlids

@paulageraghty ... because their destruction of at least part of the library at Timbuktu is the merest tip of the iceberg.

Pimlids
Pimlids

@paulageraghty You have to know about it.