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.
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?
It would honestly be absurd. There might be some documents that for the topics, like Sufism and so on, might be not very [religiously significant] from the
point of view of the rebels. 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. As far as I know, yes [this is the first time militants have targeted ancient sites at Timbuktu]. And even the Ansar Dine [a breakaway
faction of Mali's Islamists], who occupied Timbuktu, they have shown pictures of them preserving the manuscripts, showing that in some way they are -- at
least they wanted to appear as concerned about -- the preservation of the manuscripts. So they wanted to portray themselves as even the custodians of the
manuscripts themselves. At least until one week ago.
The manuscripts survived for centuries in Timbuktu. What measures have the government or the local residents in Timbuktu taken to protect the
ancient manuscripts? There have been reports that some collectors have hidden manuscripts in wooden trunks [or] buried them in boxes in the desert or
[That is why] the institute was built, after cooperation with the South African governmental institutions. The new Ahmed Baba Institute was built according
to international standards of preservation, and there were workshops for preserving the manuscripts. And people from Timbuktu used to come to South Africa
to be trained in order to improve their skills in preservation. But some of the manuscripts, especially those in private collections, are preserved in a
very, very bad condition. In terms of manuscripts, or manuscripts' heritage, that is a phenomenon that only started during the 1990s. There wasn't much
attention on West African literary heritage, especially because there was this stereotype that Africa has no written culture, Africa is made up of
countries with an oral culture. But since the 1990s a lot of money, projects, and a lot of people from all around the world started to pay attention to