Priceless Timbuktu Manuscripts Escape Burning

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The majority of Timbuktu’s manuscripts is safe, according to experts involved in the preservation of the ancient texts.

After French-led forces on Sunday recaptured Timbuktu, the northern city of Mali on the edge of the Sahara desert, the city’s mayor Hallé Ousmane Cissé made a shocking announcement. He reported that fleeing Islamic militants had set on fire several buildings, reducing thousands of priceless manuscripts kept inside the structures to a pile of ashes.

“For these Islamists, these Jihadis, there is only the Koran, everything else is worthless,” local historian and archaeologist Abdullahi Cisse told reporters.

Yet the world’s cultural community took a sigh of relief today as experts confirmed that about 300,000 texts existing in Timbuktu remained unharmed.

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Although up to 2,000 manuscripts may have been destroyed in the fire of the Ahmed Baba Institute, a government-funded research centre for the study and conservation of the scripts, the vast majority of the city’s volumes appear to have escaped destruction.

“They were put in a very safe place. I can guarantee you. The manuscripts are in total security,” Mahmoud Zouber told TIME. Before the 10-month occupation by the Islamist radicals, Zouber was Mali’s presidential aide on Islamic affairs.

Just as Afghanistans saved the Bactrian treasure from the Taliban destruction by hiding the most valuable items in a vault deep beneath Kabul’s presidential palace, Malian preservationists moved thousands of manuscripts out of the Ahmed Baba Institute to safe and hidden locations.

“There were a few items in the Ahmed Baba library, but the rest were kept away,” Shamil Jeppie, director of the Timbuktu Manuscripts Project at the University of Cape Town, told TIME.

Begun shortly after the sharia-observing militants seized control of Timbuktu, the large rescue operation involved hiding the manuscripts everywhere in the city and its surroundings.

“The people here have long memories. They are used to hiding their manuscripts. They go into the desert and bury them until it is safe,” Sidi Ahmed, a reporter who fled to Bamako during Timbuktu occupation, told National Geographic News.

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Indeed, this is not the first time that manuscripts faced dramatic threats.

Hidden in trunks or buried in the mud walls of mosques, they survived the Moroccans invasion of Timbuktu in 1591. In their efforts to take control of the city’s trans-Saharan gold trade, which gained Timbuktu a wealth unparalleled with anything seen in Africa, the Moroccans killed or deported most scholars and banned their texts.

Dating back to the late 12th century, the beginning of a 300-year golden age in which intellectual activity flourished, the ancient texts showcase an unknown aspect of Africa, depicting a country rich in kingdoms, literature, science and history.

Thousands of delicate pages, written in a variety of calligraphic styles and beautifully illustrated, incorporate the most varied subjects, such as architecture, astronomy, economics, geography, mathematics, poetry, music and even women’s rights.

Most of the manuscripts were written in Arabic, but African languages, such as Songhai, Tamashek and Bambara, were also used. The oldest script dates from 1204.

Experts say that it may take weeks before the extent of the damage caused by the Islamic militants is fully known.

Image: Pages from a Timbuktu manuscript. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

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