Ancient manuscripts feared to have been burned as Islamic extremists fled Timbuktu, Mali, appear to have been largely spared, researchers with the Tombouctou Manuscripts Project said Wednesday, citing local sources familiar with the collections.
Sources told the research team that some items had been damaged or stolen, but “there was no malicious destruction of any library or collection,” the University of Cape Town-based project said on its website. “The custodians of the libraries worked quietly throughout the rebel occupation of Timbuktu to ensure the safety of their materials.”
Reports that the papers were torched spread quickly after the Timbuktu mayor told the Associated Press and other media outlets that the Ahmed Baba Institute had been burned. Photos taken there Tuesday showed charred papers and a pile of ashes. The news horrified scholars, who said the vast trove of ancient manuscripts was still being studied.
However, Ahmed Baba Institute senior researcher Mohamed Diagayete told the university team that most manuscripts were stored in another building, which was not believed to have been destroyed, according to the Wednesday statement. Other reports in Time magazine and the Neue Zuercher Zeitung newspaper suggested manuscripts had been hidden elsewhere during the crisis.
“They were put in a very safe place. I can guarantee you. The manuscripts are in total security,” Malian official Mahmoud Zouber told Time.The Tombouctou Manuscripts Project apparently did not rule out the possibility that some papers had been lost, however, saying it was still in contact with its colleagues in Mali and “keen to establish precisely which manuscripts were damaged, destroyed or stolen.” The university team did not respond to an email this week seeking more details about the manuscripts.
As Mali has grappled with nearly a year of turmoil, the historic city of Timbuktu has suffered other blows to its ancient heritage. Last year, religious extremists who took over the city destroyed tombs and smashed a mosque gate that was not to be opened until the end of the world.
“UNESCO will spare no effort to help rebuild the mausoleums of Timbuktu and the tomb of Askia in Gao” and safeguard its ancient manuscripts, UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova said Wednesday. “I appeal to all our partners to work with us.”
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