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Tuesday, January 29, 2013

The Uncertain Fate of the Timbuktu Manuscripts

Following French-led troops recent retaking of Timbuktu, there remains uncertainty about the fate of the ancient Timbuktu manuscripts (previous coverage here).  Initially, Luke Harding at the Guardian had a piece "Timbuktu mayor: Mali rebels torched library of historic manuscripts" that stated:
Islamist insurgents retreating from Timbuktu set fire to a library containing thousands of priceless historic manuscripts, according to the Saharan town's mayor, in an incident he described as a "devastating blow" to world heritage.
Hallé Ousmani Cissé told the Guardian that al-Qaida-allied fighters on Saturday torched two buildings that held the manuscripts, some of which dated back to the 13th century.
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French troops and the Malian army reached the gates of Timbuktu on Saturday and secured the town's airport. But they appear to have got there too late to rescue the leather-bound manuscripts that were a unique record of sub-Saharan Africa's rich medieval history. 
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"It's true. They have burned the manuscripts," Cissé said in a phone interview from Mali's capital, Bamako. 
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He added: "This is terrible news. 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."
Vivienne Walt at Time, however, has an important follow-up piece called "Timbuktu Locals Saved Some of City's Ancient Manuscripts from Islamists."  Walt cites the Guardian's distressing report that the manuscripts were "torched," but then states "That is not so, according to those who've worked for months to keep the documents safe."  According to Walt, based on interviews with Time:
preservationists said that in a large-scale rescue operation early last year, shortly before the militants seized control of Timbuktu, thousands of manuscripts were hauled out of the Ahmed Baba Institute to a safe house elsewhere. Realizing that the documents might be prime targets for pillaging or vindictive attacks from Islamic extremists, staff left behind just a small portion of them, perhaps out of haste, but also to conceal the fact that the center had been deliberately emptied. “The documents which had been there are safe, they were not burned,” said Mahmoud Zouber, Mali’s presidential aide on Islamic affairs, a title he retains despite the overthrow of the former President, his boss, in a military coup a year ago; preserving Timbuktu’s manuscripts was a key project of his office. By phone from Bamako on Monday night, Zouber told TIME, “They were put in a very safe place. I can guarantee you. The manuscripts are in total security.”
Walt adds that a second "preservationist" who "did not want to be named confirmed that the center's collection had been hidden out of reach from the militants" and noted "Neither of those interviewed wanted the location of the manuscripts named in print, for fear that remnants of the al-Qaeda occupiers might return to destroy them."

Time attempted to reconcile the reports by contacting Timbuktu's Mayor Cissé, the primary source on the Guardian piece, who, according to Time "tempered the remarks he had made to journalists earlier in the day, conceding in an interview that, indeed, residents had worked to rescue the center's manuscripts before al-Qaeda occupied the city last March. Still, he said that while many manuscripts had been saved, 'they did not move all the manuscripts.'"

The possible removal of many of the manuscripts for safekeeping and the remaining uncertainty about their fate harkens back to an August 2012 piece by Mohammed Elrazzaz on Ahram online that described the long history of efforts to protect the manuscripts from earlier threats and that had concluded:
History might be repeating itself as you read these lines: the manuscripts might be safely hidden somewhere outside Timbuktu. One day when and if things calm down, they might surface again, and the story of the Kati Family will again be celebrated. Until that day comes, the fate of Timbuktu’s Andalusian manuscripts remains to be a question mark. 

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