Did Timbuktu's Priceless Archives Really Just Get 'Wiped Out'?

An interview with a South African researcher

RTR381GY-615.jpgJoe Penney/Reuters

For centuries, Timbuktu has been home to one of the largest collections of ancient Islamic manuscripts in the world. Now there are fears that those priceless treasures may have been destroyed by fleeing Islamist militants. Below is an interview with Mauro Nobili, a researcher at the University of Cape Town's Timbuktu Manuscripts Project, about the significance of the collection and the possible loss.

What is the latest news coming out from Mali about the reported destruction of Timbuktu's prized collection of Islamic manuscripts?

The news has not been confirmed. We have seen images coming from Timbuktu, but for eight days we have not been able to reach our contacts in Timbuktu. Even a group of researchers from the Ahmed Baba Institute, which has allegedly been destroyed, are in Bamako. We have been able to talk to them, but they have no news about what happened in Timbuktu. We've seen the images that, of course, show some documents have been destroyed. But nobody -- in terms of people who have worked there -- [has] been able to go inside, have a look at the damage, and report anything. Even the SkyNews video of a journalist entering the center with somebody that has been presented as a guy who works at the Ahmed Baba Institute; actually, he is only a tourist guide.

There is contrasting information. Yesterday, we read from the news that manuscripts had been burned. While this morning local news says that the bulk of the manuscripts have been taken out of the center. The situation is very confusing.

'But I think it's very, very unlikely to see them burning Korans or even most of the literature that is hosted in the Ahmed Baba Institute.'

Many have described the reported destruction of the ancient collection as a tragedy. What did the sites in Timbuktu contain and how significant would their loss be?

If we have confirmation of the destruction of the manuscripts, it means that a huge fragment of West African history would have been wiped out. The Ahmed Baba Institute hosts -- or at least it did host -- at least 20,000 ancient manuscripts that, according to the most recent estimations, account for one-fifth of all the documents in the Timbuktu area. So, of course, if confirmed it would be a disaster.

Only a few manuscripts have precise dates. Since many of them haven't been studied properly in terms of paper and ink analysis, it's not easy to date them correctly. But people claim that some of these manuscripts go back to the 14th and 15th centuries, even the 13th century. But those that are dated rarely go back further than the 17th [or] 18th century. Every kind of topic is preserved at the Ahmed Baba Institute -- from local histories, global histories, [and] masterpieces of Islamic literature to documents in terms of legal documents, trade documents, and also private correspondences between rulers. The documentation is very diverse. Every kind of documentation you can imagine is represented there.

From the information that you have, do you know whether any Koranic texts have been destroyed by the rebels, as has been reported?

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