For ten months Islamic extremists have had control of Timbuktu, Mali’s ancient northern capital. The city is home to a treasure trove of important archaeological locations and historic documents. When French led troops seized the city yesterday preservationists believed their worst fears about the fate of these ancient treasures had come true.
Timbuktu’s Mayor Hallé Ousmane Cissé had warned nearly four weeks ago that militants had burned about four hundred thousand irreplaceable ancient manuscripts. These were thought to have been culled from family collections and libraries across the country. On Monday historians learned that the city’s newly built Ahmed Baba Institute, a library and research center that is home to tens of thousands of ancient manuscripts, lay in ruins.
As in many conflicts in the world’s most ancient cities historic documents, ancient artifacts, and archaeological sites have been the target of much of the destruction in the Malian war. When northern Mali fell under extremist Islamic rule last year historic tombs and shines were demolished. These burial sites and shrines were viewed as idolatrous under their extreme interpretation of Islam.
View Slideshow: Ancient relics the target of looters, vandals, and extremists
While the international community mourned the loss of the documents unnamed preservationists came forward with the news that nearly all of the documents were safe- spirited out of the Ahmed Baba Institute over a year ago due to fears of their fate is Jihadists overtook the city.
“The documents which had been there are safe, they were not burned,” confirmed Mahmoud Zouber, Mali’s presidential aide on Islamic affairs, by phone to journalists at Time Magazine, “They were put in a very safe place. I can guarantee you. The manuscripts are in total security.”
A small fraction of the documents housed in the Institute were left behind so as not to alert the militants that the majority of the collection had been secured elsewhere. An effort to digitize the manuscripts had been underway since the center opened in 2010 but it is unclear at this time if the documents left behind and destroyed were those that had already been saved in digital form.
Also unclear is the current location of the documents or the identities of those locals who had faced great personal danger in trying to save them. Fearing that pockets of al-Qaeda militants may remain and target them for retribution both are expected to remain hidden for some time despite the assurances from French President Francois Hollande that troops were “Winning in Mali,” at a press conference on Monday morning.
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