Library Full of Precious Manuscripts Burned in Timbuktu

“No. 2256. Copyist: Musa b. Muhammad b. al-Hasan al-Kansusi from the area of Takrakar. Copied in 1144 H / 1731 G in Takrakar (Gao, Mali).” Robert Goldwater Library

The main library in Timbuktu is full of cultural relics—manuscripts that have survived since the 1200s. They were hidden in wooden trunks, buried in the sand and finally housed in the small library. But recent reports from the country say that rebels might have burned that history to the ground. The Guardian writes:

Hallé Ousmani Cissé told the Guardian that al-Qaida-allied fighters on Saturday torched two buildings that held the manuscripts, some of which dated back to the 13th century. They also burned down the town hall, the governor’s office and an MP’s residence, and shot dead a man who was celebrating the arrival of the French military.

French troops and the Malian army reached the gates of Timbuktu on Saturday and secured the town’s airport. But they appear to have got there too late to rescue the leather-bound manuscripts that were a unique record of sub-Saharan Africa‘s rich medieval history. The rebels attacked the airport on Sunday, the mayor said.

Many of those manuscripts were untranslated, with a sole copyist working on decoding their mysteries. Smart News wrote recently about Boubacar Sadeck, a copyist trying to save Timbuktu’s history:

But when a military coup erupted last spring, tourism, along with Sadeck’s livelihood, dried up almost overnight. He packed up fifty manuscripts while his librarian colleague rounded up thousands more, arranging for them to be hidden in private homes. Now, Sadeck runs Safekeeping and Promotion of Manuscripts for the Defense of Islamic Culture, an NGO that seeks to care for manuscripts, in the capital.

This isn’t the first time that rebels have wreaked havoc on relics in Timbuktu, either. In July, militants destroyed a number of tombs. The Associated Press reported:

The Islamic faction, known as Ansar Dine, or “Protectors of the Faith,” seized control of Timbuktu last week after ousting the Tuareg rebel faction that had invaded northern Mali alongside Ansar Dine’s soldiers three months ago. Over the weekend, fighters screaming “Allah Akbar” descended on the cemeteries holding the remains of Timbuktu’s Sufi saints, and systematically began destroying the six most famous tombs.

It’s unclear exactly what burned and what’s left, says the Guardian:

The precise fate of the manuscripts was difficult to verify. All phone communication with Timbuktu was cut off. The town was said to be without electricity, water or fuel. According to Traoré, who was in contact with friends there until two weeks ago, many of the rebels left town following France’s military intervention.

He added: “My friend told me they were diminishing in number. He doesn’t know where they went. But he said they were trying to hide their cars by painting and disguising them with mud.”

When the smoke clears, historians will try to figure out just how much of Timbuktu’s history was destroyed.

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