Historic Timbuktu texts saved from burning

The Wall Street Journal reports: French tanks were closing in on this storied caravan city on the night of Jan. 23, when the al Qaeda-backed militants who had governed Timbuktu since April left a departing blow. They broke into one of the world’s most valuable libraries, ripping centuries-old manuscripts from shelves.

Then they torched these priceless artifacts, in a scene of destruction that horrified scholars around the world.

But in a relief for this beleaguered city, and in a triumph for bibliophiles, the vast bulk of the library was saved by wily librarians and a security guard—with an assist from modern technology.

An estimated 28,000 of the library’s artifacts were smuggled out of town by donkey cart, said Prof. Abdoulaye Cissé and security guard Abba Alhadi, who worked to relocate the documents. Gunmen managed to burn only a few hundred papers, but even those were backed up digitally, said the library’s bookkeepers.

“We knew that what we had here was threatened,” said Mr. Cissé, a history professor and acting director for Timbuktu’s Ahmed Baba Institute for Higher Studies and Islamic Research. “So I said, ‘We’re going to have to start moving them out.’ ”

The rescue mission for some of Africa’s most precious written history represents the latest example of Timbuktu’s collective determination to preserve its heritage, amid a long line of threats to these irreplaceable artifacts. Aside from its 14th-century mud mosques, and a fabled name, Timbuktu houses at least 100,000 ancient manuscripts that date from the 11th century, and account for some of the medieval world’s most sophisticated scholarship. Subjects include medicine, law, astronomy and botany.

Still, the treasures of Timbuktu have been looted and smashed by a succession of invading armies, the most recent being al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, or AQIM. [Continue reading…]

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