Most recent reports suggest that not all of the manuscripts held at the Ahmed Baba Institute in Timbuktu have been destroyed. While of course it’s a tragedy that any of these amazing ancient texts could have been burned by Islamists as they retreated from the town, I believe it shows that some members of the Timbuktu community have stood up to the Islamists.
When I was last in Mali in October I wrote a piece for the Africa Report about what was happening to the thousands of manuscripts in the city. At the time I found it frustrating that even the owners of private libraries (such as the Mama Haidar library which holds some 40,000 texts) seemed not to know what was happening to the books or whether they were safe. In hindsight I think it means they were withholding information in order to ensure that outraged newspaper headlines making comparisons with the Taliban’s destruction of Bamiyan would not provoke the Islamists.
The Timbuktu manuscripts rightly deserve the universal attention they are receiving – they are truly magical and reflect the town’s unique position as an ancient centre of learning in the Islamic world. They recall the days of the great Malian king Kanka Moussa who wowed the world when he travelled to Mecca in the 15th century in a caravan laden with riches and gold from Mali’s famous mines.
Hopefully now the world’s attention is turned on the ancient ‘lost’ city of Timbuktu and all its mystical legends – and most importantly the citizens’ attempts to protect this irreplacable heritage – there will be an understanding that suggesting Mali is a fertile breeding ground for the extremists who took over the north only demonstrates a woefully superficial knowledge of Mali’s long and fascinating history.