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Timbuktu, a city classed as a world heritage site since only 1988, was founded around a thousand years ago by Tuareg nomads. Later it became part of the Mali Empire. Its illustrious mosques and shrines – Djinguereber, Sidi Yahya and Sankore – are among the treasures of Timbuktu.
What has happened to this repository of historic knowledge, or will happen, is very worrying to guardians of scholarship the world over.
When the Ansar Dine Islamists took control of the city last year, they destroyed tombs of Sufi saints which the hardliners condemned as structures of idolatry.
Shortly before this, UNESCO had warned against it, yet to no avail. It sounded the alarm over the sack of Timbuktu.
Last July, UNESCO Director General Irina Bokova said: “We are very concerned about what happens in Mali. We are extremely concerned about the destruction; it’s a World Heritage Site. There are mausoleums, mosques and manuscripts which represent an enormous value for humanity.”
Estimates of the number of manuscripts vary, but some sources say as many as 700,000 were collected in Timbuktu over centuries – Islamic and pre-Islamic – kept by families over many generations, and covering a vast variety of knowledge, including astronomy, law, medicine, mathematics and religion.
Twenty kilometres north of the River Niger on the southern edge of the Sahara Desert, Timbuktu thrived on salt, spices, gold, ivory and slave trading routes.
While priceless cargoes were caravanned to and from all points of the compass, little by little the inestimable records of culture concentrated.
Ali Ould Sidi of the Timbuktu Cultural Mission in 2008 said: “The nomads had moving libraries. When a camp struck, they buried manuscripts in leather sacks, and the people went on their way. Coming back months later, they knew the land and would dig up their library again. Some of them still have them, but in pitiful condition.”
Humidity and parasites are age-old enemies of the ancient writings, and now war. Army sources say fleeing militants targeted a building housing manuscripts and set in on fire.