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January 29, 2013

Scholars Assess Damage to Legacy of Timbuktu

by Jeff Seldin

It has long been considered one of the wonders of Africa - Mali's fabled city of Timbuktu, with historic architecture and extensive libraries, many containing documents found nowhere else.  Now, the mayor of Timbuktu says Islamist militants fleeing the city have left a trail of destruction.

For all the joy that the city has been freed from the grip of Islamist militants, there is also grief and despair at the devastation that's been left behind.

"They destroyed everything, they destroyed the mosque, they destroyed the things is more than 300, 400 years old,' they said, because their religion doesn't accept that.  For me, it doesn't make any sense.  And we tried to fight.  Who to fight?  We are on our own.  We don't have guns to fight them, we don't have nothing," a librarian said.  

The Malian Manuscript Foundation, a group that digitizes Malian manuscripts, says 3,000 documents, “Potentially, the wisdom of the ages”, may have been lost in the torching of the Ahmed Baba Institute.

Others are calling the destruction unprecedented.

"These manuscripts were just starting to be studied.  Not all of them have been catalogued.  Hardly any have been read.  It represents a set of knowledge that is now just never going to be known,” said Douglas Post Park, the co-director of the Saharan Archaeological Research Association.

The texts of Timbuktu date as far back as the 12th century, when gold and other goods flowed through the city, allowing it to become a center of learning that some compare to the ancient library of Alexandria, Egypt.

And it is a tradition that has clung to life, right up to the militant takeover.

Scholars say it will take time to assess just how much has been lost.

It will also take time to recover from the shock.

“Everyone who hears about this can only be horrified by this deliberate action, deliberate destruction of this important heritage of the world,” said Lazare Eloundou Assomo, head of the Africa Desk at UNESCO World Heritage Center.

For now, scholars hope that, as during past threats, those who remained in the city managed to hide some of the precious manuscripts, and that Timbuktu and its legacy will not yet succumb to extremism or the Saharan sands.