Mayor Halley Ousmane of Mali's fabled city of Timbuktu says Islamist militants torched a library containing thousands of ancient Arab manuscripts
, as they retreated from the city this week.
Experts are uncertain of the extent of damage at the Ahmed Baba Institute. But they fear many priceless documents have been destroyed.
The institute is one of several libraries in Timbuktu. It contains about 30,000 manuscripts, many of them collected from private family libraries throughout the country. Some of the fragile documents are bound by camel hide.
Some of the documents date back to the 13th century, a time when Timbuktu was a trading hub and center of Islamic scholarship.
In a VOA interview, Michael Covitt, chairman of Malian Manuscript Foundation, said the manuscripts cover a wide variety of topics.
“The manuscripts cover pretty much every science under the sun, from astronomy to astrology to numerology to mathematics to medicine to jurisprudence,” he said.
Covitt, whose foundation digitally preserves Malian manuscripts, says "wisdom of the ages" could potentially be lost as a result of the fire.
"It is the treasure not only the family but all the world. It’s probably the most important documents and legacy of intellectual pursuit discovered since the 20th century with the Dead Sea Scrolls,” he said.
Douglas Post Park, the Co-Director of the Saharan Archaeological Research Association, says the destruction of Timbuktu's manuscripts would amount to a "crime against culture."
The Ahmed Baba Institute opened a new building in 2009, with the help of funding from South Africa.
UNESCO, the U.N. cultural agency, lists Timbuktu as a World Heritage site for its ancient mosques and shrines.
Islamist group Ansar Dine destroyed a number of ancient mausoleums in Timbuktu during the months it ruled the city.
This March 16, 2004 photo shows an unidentified worker looking after some of the 20,000 preserved ancient Islamic manuscripts which rest in air-conditioned rooms at the Ahmed Baba Institute in Timbuktu, Mali.
This March 16, 2004 shows some of the 20,000 preserved ancient Islamic manuscripts which rest in air-conditioned rooms are displayed at the Ahmed Baba Institute in Timbuktu, Mali.
This March 16, 2004 shows Alhousseini Ould Alfadrou, 16, singing verses from crumbling ancient Islamic manuscripts in a mud-walled house in Timbuktu, Mali.
This May 1, 2012 photo shows men work near one of Timburktu's historic mud mosques.
This April 11, 2012 photo shows people walking past the Sankore Mosque, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, in Timbuktu, Mali.
This April 15, 2012 shows town notables and two leaders of the Tuareg separatist NMLA in front of Sankore Mosque, a UNESCO World Heritage site, in Timbuktu, Mali.
This May 1, 2012 photo shows a woman in front of a traditionally decorated door in Timbuktu, Mali.
Some information for this report was provided by AP, AFP and Reuters.