As the Malian military tried to retake the storied city of Timbuktu from Islamic extremists, scholars feared for the fate of ancient artifacts and mosques that testify to its historic grandeur.
Timbuktu has been threatened for months: The city was added to a UNESCO list of world landmarks in danger last summer, after a stream of reports that rebels had smashed tombs they deemed idolatrous and destroyed the door of a 15th century mosque, which lore holds was never to be opened until the last day of the world.
The city flourished in centuries past as a hub for Islamic scholarship and as a bustling crossroads where traders exchanged salt, gold and cattle. It played a central role in the spread of the Arabic language and Islamic culture across West Africa.
New fears for the city’s historical treasures emerged Monday as Malian soldiers reentered Timbuktu. The mayor told the Associated Press that as extremists fled, they torched the main library stocked with ancient manuscripts, sending “the history of Timbuktu” up in flames.
The library of the Ahmed Baba Institute held about 40,000 of the estimated 100,000 ancient manuscripts in Timbuktu, said Douglas Park, a visiting anthropology lecturer at Rice University. [Updated 4 p.m. PST Jan. 28: Other estimates from UNESCO and the Tombouctou Manuscripts Project place the size of the collection at about 30,000 documents, using different counting methods.]
“It’s the greatest loss of the written word in Africa since the destruction of the library of Alexandria,” Park said, referring to the great library of ancient Egypt. “It’s the destruction of information that was unknown and will now never be known.”
Scholars had only recently begun to catalog and scan the vast trove of documents, hoping to gain insight into everything from how ancient people dealt with climate change to the genesis of a liberal, tolerant strain of Islam in West Africa. The documents dated as far back as the 12th century.
“Until recently, it was erroneously argued in certain Western circles that African cultural tradition was largely or rather completely oral,” said Amidu Sanni, an Arabic manuscripts expert at Lagos State University, in an interview via Skype. Timbuktu’s thousands of documents contradicted that idea.
Experts say the manuscripts included a wide array of court records and documents revealing international relations in the ancient world, giving them importance beyond Mali itself. The records may also have offered a window into the selling of slaves across the Sahara, shedding light on the roots of the trade. Many of them had not yet been read, Park said.
“Unfortunately, there aren’t a lot of scholars working in that area,” said Thomas A. Hale, professor emeritus of African literature at Penn State University.
Researching the documents required a deep knowledge of the particular versions of Arabic writing used in the Sahel region, said Hale, who visited Timbuktu and saw the manuscripts in 1991. It also meant reaching the isolated city and avoiding hijackings along the way, he added.
A new building at the Ahmed Baba Institute had recently been built to house manuscripts, designed as a one-stop research center for the documents, Sanni said. A team of experts based at the University of Cape Town in South Africa had been seeking to ensure that the manuscripts were digitized to prevent them from being irretrievably lost.
Ahmed Baba was “probably the biggest library of manuscripts” in the region, Sanni said. If the records there were destroyed, “the world must have been struck by an incalculable catastrophe,” he said.
Researchers now hope that some of the documents were moved before the reported burning of the library and that other private libraries were spared.
“I suspect that the people in charge of that center made great efforts to hide the material or to protect it,” Hale said. “Whether they succeeded in that, I don’t know.”
A UNESCO spokeswoman said the organization was following the situation closely and was in touch with French and Malian authorities in Mali.
Scholars are also anxiously awaiting news of the fate of other treasures: The mosques of Djingareyber, Sankore and Sidi Yahia, restored in the 16th century, are considered “essential examples of earthen architecture and of traditional maintenance techniques,” according to UNESCO.
Sidi Yahia is the mosque reportedly battered by extremists last year, its gate destroyed. Three other mosques were destroyed long before the rebellion and conflict began. Tombs within the other two mosques were probably targeted, but it is unclear how much Djingareyber and Sankore were damaged, Park said.
Scholars assume that extremists destroyed all or almost all of the estimated 333 Timbuktu tombs dedicated to saints, Park said. People living in Timbuktu still worshiped at the sites as part of Sufi tradition, a practice that offended the religious radicals who overtook the city.
In addition to the mosques, tombs and manuscripts, Timbuktu had burial mounds filled with artifacts dating back as far as 500 BC, before Tuareg traders founded the city, Park said. Looting was already a problem in the mounds, while others were still in use, preventing their excavation. A cultural mission also held Stone Age and Iron Age artifacts.
“Mali’s cultural heritage is a jewel whose protection is important for the whole of humanity,” UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova said this month, urging military forces to protect the cultural sites as they battled to regain control from militants. “This is our common heritage. Nothing can justify damaging it.”
[For the Record, 7:39 a.m. Jan. 29: An earlier version of this post included an erroneous reference to Timbuktu as the “city of 1,000 saints.” It is known as the “city of 333 saints.” The quote has been omitted.]