Photograph by Ben Curtis, AP

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A worker looks after Islamic manuscripts in Timbuktu's Ahmed Baba Institute in 2004.

Photograph by Ben Curtis, AP

Timbuktu’s Vulnerable Manuscripts Are City’s "Gold"

Some of Timbuktu’s ancient manuscripts may have been destroyed by militants.

French and Malian troops surrounded Timbuktu on Monday and began combing the labyrinthine city for Islamist fighters. Witnesses, however, said the Islamists, who claim an affiliation to al Qaeda and had imposed a Taliban-style rule in the northern Malian city over the last ten months, slipped into the desert a few days earlier.

But before fleeing, the militants reportedly set fire to several buildings and many rare manuscripts. Timbuktu Mayor Halle Ousmane Cisse, speaking from the Malian capital of Bamako, told journalists that the fighters had "torched all the important documents." However, there are conflicting reports as to how many manuscripts were actually destroyed. (Video: Roots of the Mali Crisis.)

On Monday, Sky News posted an interview with a man identifying himself as an employee of the Ahmed Baba Institute, a government-run repository for rare books and manuscripts, the oldest of which date back to the city's founding in the 12th century. The man said some 3,000 of the institute's 20,000 manuscripts had been destroyed or looted by the Islamists.

Video showed what appeared to be a large pile of charred manuscripts and the special boxes made to preserve them in front of one of the institute's buildings.

However, a member of the University of Cape Town Timbuktu Manuscript Project told eNews Channel Africa on Tuesday that he had spoken with the director of the Ahmed Baba Institute, Mahmoud Zouber, who said that nearly all of its manuscripts had been removed from the buildings and taken to secure locations months earlier.

Speaking later from Bamako, Zouber told TIME: "I can guarantee you. The manuscripts are in total security." (Read "The Telltale Scribes of Timbuktu" in National Geographic magazine.)

A Written Legacy

The written word is deeply rooted in Timbuktu's rich history. The city emerged as a wealthy center of trade, Islam, and learning during the 13th century, attracting a number of Sufi religious scholars. They in turn took on students, forming schools affiliated with's Timbuktu's three main mosques.

The scholars imported parchment and vellum manuscripts via the caravan system that connected northern Africa with the Mediterranean and Arabia. Wealthy families had the documents copied and illuminated by local scribes, building extensive libraries containing works of religion, art, mathematics, medicine, astronomy, history, geography, and culture.

"The manuscripts are the city's real gold," said Mohammed Aghali, a tour guide from Timbuktu. "The manuscripts, our mosques, and our history—these are our treasures. Without them, what is Timbuktu?"

This isn't the first time that an occupying army has threatened Timbuktu's cultural heritage. The Moroccan army invaded the city in 1591 to take control of the gold trade. In the process of securing the city, they killed or deported most of Timbuktu's scholars, including the city's most famous teacher, Ahmed Baba al Massufi, who was held in exile in Marrakesh for many years and forced to teach in a pasha's court. He finally returned to Timbuktu in 1611, and it is for him that the Ahmed Baba Institute was named.

Hiding the Texts

In addition to the Ahmed Baba Institute, Timbuktu is home to more than 60 private libraries, some with collections containing several thousand manuscripts and others with only a precious handful. (Read about the fall of Timbuktu.)

Sidi Ahmed, a reporter based in Timbuktu who recently fled to Bamako, said Monday that nearly all the libraries, including the world-renowned Mamma Haidara and the Fondo Kati libraries, had secreted their collections before the Islamist forces had taken the city.

"The people here have long memories," he said. "They are used to hiding their manuscripts. They go into the desert and bury them until it is safe."

Though it appears most of the manuscripts are safe, the Islamists' occupation took a heavy toll on Timbuktu.

Women were flogged for not covering their hair or wearing bright colors. Girls were forbidden from attending school, and boys were recruited into the fighters' ranks.

Music was banned. Local imams who dared speak out against the occupiers were barred from preaching in their mosques. In a move reminiscent of the Taliban's destruction of Afghanistan's famous Bamiyan Buddha sculptures, Islamist fighters bulldozed 14 ancient mud-brick mausoleums and cemeteries that held the remains of revered Sufi saints.

A spokesman for the Islamists said it was "un-Islamic" for locals to "worship idols."