Despite Rebels’ Attacks, Many of Timbuktu’s Historic Manuscripts Still Safe

Despite the worst fears of Timbuktu mayor in exile Hallé Ousmani Cissé, who recently told the Guardian that al-Qaida-affiliated rebels retreating from the Malian capital had torched two buildings housing priceless manuscripts — some dating as far back as the 13th century — many of the country’s historic texts remain safe in the collections of personal family libraries, the New Yorker reports.

“The great majority of the manuscripts, about fifty thousand, are actually housed in the thirty-two family libraries of the ‘City of 333 Saints,’” Jean-Michel Djian, a French writer and the author of “The Manuscripts of Timbuktu,” told the New Yorker. “Those are to this day protected.”

Many of Mali’s manuscripts have long been housed in homes, caves, and huts, but in 1973 the government — with the support of UNESCO, South Africa, and other investors — began work on the Ahmed Baba Centre, which opened in 2009. The facility was created with the goal of restoring and digitizing the country’s unparalleled collection of manuscripts, but its function as a repository for ancient texts devoted to medicine, women’s rights, anatomy, and more, has made it a popular target for Islamist rebels, who have attached it repeatedly.

That building, according to Cissé, has been burned down. But, as the New Yorker’s Lila Azam Zanganeh cautions, the mayor “has for the last ten months sought refuge in Mali’s capital city, Bamako, and even he only possesses second-hand information.” Djian, meanwhile, said that the majority of the city’s manuscripts remain safe. “The rest,” he told the New Yorker, “is unknown.”

— Benjamin Sutton

(Image: Timbuktu manuscripts via Wikipedia Commons.)