De første meldingene gikk ut på at det kunne skjedd en kulturell katastrofe, en villet sådan, på linje med brenningen av biblioteket i Alexandria: En uerstattelig samling manuskripter som dokumenterer islamsk kultur, skulle ha vært brent av jihadister på retrett.
Nå later det til at kuratorene så for seg hva som kunne komme til å skje og tok sine forholdsregler; man flyttet de mest dyrebare manuskriptene til et sikkert sted.
Timbuktu, which is on the U.N.-designated World Heritage List, was a seat of Islamic learning for centuries, and its Ahmed Baba library, which was constructed in 2010, was home to 20,000 manuscripts dating back as early as the year 1204. It’s still not known how many of the documents were destroyed.
Michael Covitt, chairman of the Malian Manuscript Foundation, called the arson a “desecration to humanity” in an interview with the Associated Press.
Time magazine’s Vivienne Walt reports that some experts on the ground in Mali say many of the manuscripts were saved before the Islamists’ pillage:
Realizing that the documents might be prime targets for pillaging or vindictive attacks from Islamic extremists, staff left behind just a small portion of them, perhaps out of haste, but also to conceal the fact that the center had been deliberately emptied.
“The documents which had been there are safe, they were not burned,” Mahmoud Zouber, Mali’s presidential aide on Islamic affairs, told Time, “They were put in a very safe place.”
Other experts confirmed that while there were “a few items” in the Ahmed Baba library, the rest were protected in an undisclosed hiding place.
According to Walt, the library contained hundreds of thousands of pages, some of which had gold illumination, astrological charts and sophisticated mathematical formulas. The manuscripts cover subjects including science, astrology, medicine, theology, grammar and geography,according to the AP.
They are written in Arabic script using both the Arabic language and African languages — a testament to Timbuktu’s melting pot history. Over centuries, the city established itself as a major point on a caravan trail, bringing together Africans, Berbers, Arabs and the nomadic Tuareg people for trade.
Manuscripts were imported to Timbuktu from North Africa and Egypt, and scholars would copy them to add to their own libraries. Ahmed Baba, for whom the library is named, was a 16th-century Timbuktu scholar who had a personal library of more than 1600 books — and his was one of the smaller collections in the region, according to the Ahmed Baba Institute.
Timbuktu began its intellectual decline with the Moroccan invasion in the 16th century, but ancient letters and books continued to be preserved in private homes.