Those Tragically Torched Manuscripts in Timbuktu Weren't Torched After All

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Good news, history fans: Researchers revealed on Wednesday that the vast majority of the 300,000 ancient manuscripts that had supposedly been burned by Malian rebels are actually "safe and sound." Shamil Jeppie, Cape Town University professor who's an expert on the priceless documents which date back to the 13th century, told the press, "I can say that the vast majority of the collections appear from our reports not to have been destroyed, damaged or harmed in any way." And when Professor Jeppie says "vast majority," he means it -- emphasis on the "vast." A Malian who's part of a larger effort to preserve the papers told Reuters that 95 percent of the manuscripts were in safe-keeping.

You see, this isn't the first time that Timbuktu's been raided by vandals. Over the centuries, the small Saharan town has been invaded by everybody from Morocco to France, and somewhere along the line, locals figured out ways to stash the historical documents. As evidenced by folks like Jeppie and Reuters' Malian source, there is a group of people today that continue to safeguard the manuscripts, and when it was apparent that the Islamist militants that had been terrorizing northern Mali were on their way to Timbuktu nearly a year ago, they sprung into action. "The people here have long memories," Sidi Ahmed, a local journalist, explained to the press. "They are used to hiding their manuscripts. They go into the desert and bury them until it is safe."

In the past, the manuscripts' guardians have also included hiding them in mud homes and nearby caves. This time around, though, the script security detail went the extra mile and actually shipped a large number of the documents outside the country. According to Jeppie, they're hiding "a little bit everywhere." Except for about 2,000 manuscripts. Those did get burned, and even though it's not an entire library, it's still tragic.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.