For centuries, Timbuktu has been home to one of the largest collections of ancient Islamic manuscripts in the world. Now there are fears that those priceless treasures may have been destroyed by fleeing Islamist militants. RFE/RL correspondent Frud Bezhan speaks with Mauro Nobili, a researcher at the University Of Cape Town's Timbuktu Manuscripts Project, about the significance of the collection and the possible loss.
RFE/RL: What is the latest news coming out from Mali about the reported destruction of Timbuktu's prized collection of Islamic manuscripts?
The news has not been confirmed. We have seen images coming from Timbuktu, but for eight days we have not been able to reach our contacts in Timbuktu. Even a group of researchers from the Ahmed Baba Institute, which has allegedly been destroyed, are in Bamako. We have been able to talk to them, but they have no news about what happened in Timbuktu. We've seen the images that, of course, show some documents have been destroyed. But nobody -- in terms of people who have worked there -- [has] been able to go inside, have a look at the damage, and report anything. Even the SkyNews video of a journalist entering the center with somebody that has been presented as a guy who works at the Ahmed Baba Institute; actually, he is only a tourist guide.
There is contrasting information. Yesterday, we read from the news that manuscripts had been burned. While this morning local news says that the bulk of the manuscripts have been taken out of the center. The situation is very confusing.
RFE/RL: Many have described the reported destruction of the ancient collection as a tragedy. What did the sites in Timbuktu contain and how significant would their loss be?
If we have confirmation of the destruction of the manuscripts, it means that a huge fragment of West African history would have been wiped out. The Ahmed Baba Institute hosts -- or at least it did host -- at least 20,000 ancient manuscripts that, according to the most recent estimations, account for one-fifth of all the documents in the Timbuktu area. So, of course, if confirmed it would be a disaster.
Only a few manuscripts have precise dates. Since many of them haven't been studied properly in terms of paper and ink analysis, it's not easy to date them correctly. But people claim that some of these manuscripts go back to the 14th and 15th centuries, even the 13th century. But those that are dated rarely go back further than the 17th [or] 18th century. Every kind of topic is preserved at the Ahmed Baba Institute -- from local histories, global histories, [and] masterpieces of Islamic literature to documents in terms of legal documents, trade documents, and also private correspondences between rulers. The documentation is very diverse. Every kind of documentation you can imagine is represented there.
RFE/RL: From the information that you have, do you know whether any Koranic texts have been destroyed by the rebels, as has been reported?
French troops aboard armored vehicles are greeted as they arrive in Timbuktu on January 28, after the Islamist rebels fled the city.
It would honestly be absurd. There might be some documents that for the topics, like Sufism and so on, might be not very [religiously significant] from the point of view of the rebels. But I think it's very, very unlikely to see them burning Korans or even most of the literature that is hosted in the Ahmed Baba Institute. As far as I know, yes [this is the first time militants have targeted ancient sites at Timbuktu]. And even the Ansar Dine [a breakaway faction of Mali's Islamists], who occupied Timbuktu, they have shown pictures of them preserving the manuscripts, showing that in some way they are -- at least they wanted to appear as concerned about -- the preservation of the manuscripts. So they wanted to portray themselves as even the custodians of the manuscripts themselves. At least until one week ago.
RFE/RL: The manuscripts survived for centuries in Timbuktu. What measures have the government or the local residents in Timbuktu taken to protect the ancient manuscripts? There have been reports that some collectors have hidden manuscripts in wooden trunks [or] buried them in boxes in the desert or in caves.
[That is why] the institute was built, after cooperation with the South African governmental institutions. The new Ahmed Baba Institute was built according to international standards of preservation, and there were workshops for preserving the manuscripts. And people from Timbuktu used to come to South Africa to be trained in order to improve their skills in preservation. But some of the manuscripts, especially those in private collections, are preserved in a very, very bad condition. In terms of manuscripts, or manuscripts' heritage, that is a phenomenon that only started during the 1990s. There wasn't much attention on West African literary heritage, especially because there was this stereotype that Africa has no written culture, Africa is made up of countries with an oral culture. But since the 1990s a lot of money, projects, and a lot of people from all around the world started to pay attention to Timbuktu.
RFE/RL: What other places of cultural heritage have the Malian rebels targeted besides the ancient collections of Timbuktu? Are there other cases in African countries where Islamic cultural sites have been destroyed?
They have destroyed the [Sufi] tombs in Timbuktu -- [in] many of the sacred places of, let's say, saints in Timbuktu. [Religious extremists have also presented] problems in Somalia in a similar phenomenon; [and] also in Libya, after the fall of Colonel [Muammar] Qaddafi; attempts to destroy the tombs in Tunisia. So it seems like everywhere you have these kind of Salafi-oriented movements -- let's say fundamentalist movements -- especially tombs are actually under threat of being destroyed.
From very important saints, even if the term is not very appropriate in an Islamic context, these tombs often become sites for something like local pilgrimages who venerate these saints. And this is one of the problems with, let's say, the fundamentalists -- this idea that venerating the saints will distract people from venerating God.