- 29 Jan 2013
- The Guardian
- Luke Harding
Thousands destroyed by retreating Islamists Documents were ‘part of world’s heritage’Hallé Ousmani Cissé, the mayor of Timbuktu, was distraught as he described the destruction of thousands of historic manuscripts at the hands of Islamist militias as they retreated from the advance of French and Malian troops.
“It’s true,” he said in a phone interview from Mali’s capital, Bamako. “They have burned the manuscripts. They also burned down several buildings. The manuscripts were a part not only of Mali’s heritage but the world’s heritage. By destroying them they threaten the world. We have to kill all of the rebels in the north.”
The manuscripts – some of which date from the 13th century – were held in two separate locations within the town, an ageing library and a new South Africanfunded research centre, the Ahmed Baba Institute, less than a mile away. Completed in 2009 and named after a 17thcentury Timbuktu scholar, the centre used state of the art techniques to study and conserve the crumbling manuscripts. Both buildings were destroyed, according to the mayor, who said his information came from an informer who had just left the town.
The documents had survived for centuries in Timbuktu, on the remote south-west fringe of the Sahara desert. They were hidden in wooden trunks, buried in boxes under the sand and in caves. When French colonial rule ended in 1960, Timbuktu residents held preserved manuscripts in up to 80 private libraries.
Most of the texts were written in Arabic, with a few in African languages, such as Songhai, Tamashek and Bambara, and one in Hebrew. They covered a diverse range of topics including astronomy, poetry, music, medicine and women’s rights. The oldest dated from 1204.
Seydou Traoré, who has worked at the Ahmed Baba Institute since 2003, and fled shortly before the rebels arrived, said only a fraction of the manuscripts had been digitised. “They cover geography, history and religion. We had one in Turkish. We don’t know what it said.” He said the manuscripts were important because they exploded the myth that “black Africa” had only an oral history.
Some of the most fascinating scrolls included an ancient history of west Africa, the Tarikh al-Soudan, letters of recommendation for the intrepid 19th-century German explorer Heinrich Barth, and a text dealing with erectile dysfunction.
A large number dated from Timbuktu’s intellectual heyday in the 14th and 15th centuries, Traoré said. By the late 1500s the town, north of the Niger river, was a wealthy and successful trading centre, attracting scholars and curious travellers from across the Middle East. Some brought books to sell.
Mali government forces that had been guarding Timbuktu left the town in late March as Islamist fighters advanced rapidly across the north. Fighters from al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) – the group responsible for the attack on the Algerian gas facility – then swept in and seized the town, pushing out rival groups including secular Tuareg nationalists.
Traoré told the Guardian that he decided to leave Timbuktu in January 2012 amid reports of shootings in the area, and after the kidnapping of three European tourists from a Timbuktu hotel. A fourth tourist, a German, resisted and was shot dead. Months later AQIM arrived, he said.
Four or five rebels had been sleeping in the institute, which had comparatively luxurious facilities for staff, he said. As well as the manuscripts, the fighters destroyed almost all of the 333 Sufi shrines dotted around Timbuktu, believing them to be idolatrous.
Other residents who fled Timbuktu said the fighters adorned the town with their black flag. Written on it in Arabic were the words “God is great”.
The rebels enforced their own brutal and arbitrary version of Islam, residents said, with offenders flogged for talking to women and other supposed crimes.
The floggings took place in the square outside the 15th-century Sankoré mosque, a Unesco world heritage site.
“They weren’t religious men ,” said Maha Madu, a Timbuktu boatman, now in the Niger river town of Mopti. “They were criminals.”