Did Islamists Destroy The Priceless Medieval Manuscripts Of Timbuktu?

TimbuktuTimbuktu is now safe from the ravages of the Islamists of northern Mali, thanks to a French-led offensive that has been kicking some fundamentalist derrière for the past couple of weeks.

Since April 2012, the city had been under the control of Ansar Dine (Defenders of Faith) who imposed a harsh version of Sharia law, cutting the hands off thieves, flogging men for talking to women in public, and even banning smoking and television. Now Ansar Dine has retreated into the desert.

Sadly, the liberation of the UNESCO World Heritage Site comes too late to save many of its historic treasures. As we’ve reported before, many of Timbuktu’s medieval shrines have been destroyed. Ansar Dine vowed to destroy all the city’s medieval shrines of Muslim saints, which they say are contrary to Islam. They appear to have come close to achieving that goal.

Even worse, there are now reports that the priceless collection of medieval manuscripts of Timbuktu may have been burnt by the Islamists before they retreated. These manuscripts cover everything from history to medicine and in many cases are our only records of important periods of African history. Some date back to the beginning of the 13th century.

An early report in yesterday’s Guardian quoted Timbuktu’s mayor, who had fled to the capital Bamako but had been in contact with associates in Timbuktu. His associates said that two buildings used to house the manuscripts had been torched, including the Ahmad Babu Institute, a state-of-the-art research institute finished in 2009.

A more measured report by the Globe and Mail says that a Sky TV crew had discovered the institute intact, but that some individual manuscripts were destroyed or missing. An estimated 10,000 of the hundreds of thousands of manuscripts may be gone. There was no word on what had happened to the dozens of private collections around the city.

This BBC report from the scene today says that “hundreds” of manuscripts have been burned, but shows no footage of this.

So it remains unclear what happened to Timbuktu’s priceless collection of historic writings. Some may have been destroyed, and others may have been looted by Ansar Dine to sell on the illegal antiquities market. What is clear is that one of the historic jewels of Africa has been permanently damaged thanks to a bunch of fanatics.

[Photo courtesy Library of Congress]