There is something of a mystery, an historical debate, about who exactly caused the burning of the great Library at Alexandria. There is, however, no mystery about who torched the library in Timbuktu.
Some years back, while researching the Sand book, I became fascinated by the stories of the manuscripts of Timbuktu, many of them dating back to the thirteenth century:
It is not only the dryness of the climate that preserves ancient manuscripts—the desiccating properties of sand can do the same directly… Timbuktu holds dramatic illustrations of this. From around a.d. 1300 to 1500, the fabled city was a great seat of learning, with students and scholars coming from far away to study, learn, and debate. But after its fall, many of its archives became dispersed or lost. However, in recent years, following more peaceful times in Mali, literally thousands of manuscripts have been recovered from where they had been hidden, in caves or directly in the desert sand.
“More peaceful times in Mali” – how times do change. Back then, Mauritania, Mali, the Festival of the Desert, were high on my bucket list of destinations, a fine illustration of the foolishness of procrastination. And when I read in the news this morning that the manuscript collections had been burned by the fleeing “rebels,” I was ready to weep. I reached in vain for words that would properly describe this act and the individuals who committed it, until I settled on “obscene” and “evil,” words that apply to essentially all of the actions of these people.
As the culmination of decades of work, largely stimulated by UNESCO, and with the collaboration of the Malian and South African Governments, the support of the Ford Foundation, funding from Kuwait, and the expertise of the University of Capetown, the Ahmed Baba Institute of Higher Learning and Islamic Research opened the doors of its new building in 2009. It housed collections of literally priceless manuscripts and the facilities and staff to finally document and preserve them. On Monday came the news that it had been destroyed.
However, at the time of writing, there is a glimmer of hope – not, perhaps, for the facility but for the manuscripts. Time magazine reports that, in anticipation of exactly what happened, a significant number of them had been quietly removed and hidden; history repeating itself, ironically:
In interviews with TIME on Monday, preservationists said that in a large-scale rescue operation early last year, shortly before the militants seized control of Timbuktu, thousands of manuscripts were hauled out of the Ahmed Baba Institute to a safe house elsewhere. Realizing that the documents might be prime targets for pillaging or vindictive attacks from Islamic extremists, staff left behind just a small portion of them, perhaps out of haste, but also to conceal the fact that the center had been deliberately emptied.
Let us hope that this is true.
Update 2 February: grounds for optimism - it seems likely that the majority of the manuscripts were indeed removed and hidden safely.