In contrast to horrific reports from Timbuktu earlier this week, an important library of medieval texts is still standing, and many manuscripts are thought to have survived the hasty retreat of Islamic militants, researchers and journalists say.
Recent news from the city had sounded very bad for Africa's cultural heritage: Islamic fundamentalists, who fled as French and Malian troops retook this city in northern Mali after 9 months of occupation, had reportedly burned down the library of Timbuktu's Ahmed Baba Institute of Higher Learning and Islamic Research—one of the continent's most important archives. The building, opened in 2009, is one of two facilities in Timbuktu run by the institute. Media reports suggested that thousands of medieval manuscripts had been turned into ashes.
Today, the picture looks considerably brighter, even as archaeologists and historians around the world scramble to get a better idea of what really happened. The library building is still standing, according to reports from journalists and researchers within the country, and many manuscripts either weren't burnt in the first place or were hidden away by archivists who had earlier fled to Mali's capital, Bamako.
"The information that the library was burnt is not correct," says Susana Molins-Lliteras, a historian at the University of Cape Town in South Africa and a researcher at the Cape Town-based Tombouctou Manuscripts Project, which helped construct the library building. The project put out a statement to that effect today, citing both journalistic reports and an Ahmed Baba Institute researcher currently in Bamako, who was able to make contact with his colleagues in Timbuktu. Most of the manuscripts were still housed in an older building on the other side of town, built in the 1970s, say Molins-Lliteras and other Western researchers who work in Mali.
The original reports of the library's demise were attributed to Timbuktu's mayor, Hallé Ousmani Cissé, who was widely quoted in news accounts. However, the mayor was actually in Bamako at the time of the alleged events, and was apparently relying on inaccurate information from Timbuktu.
Media outlets began to backtrack on the burning of the library on Tuesday. Sky News correspondent Alex Crawford—who was embedded with French troops—visited the institute and reported on camera that it was still standing. But she also reported finding burnt storage boxes and empty vaults, so some researchers continued to fear that the manuscripts themselves had been put to the torch.
Researchers familiar with the institute, however, were relieved at watching the video. It is no surprise that the vaults were empty and only a small number of boxes were found, because only a fraction of the manuscripts had been moved from the old to the new building before the Islamists took over the city, Molins-Lliteras says. There are, however, no reports yet about the state of the old building, although researchers say they have no reason to think it was touched.
Marie Rodet, a historian at the University of London's School of Oriental and African Studies who works in Mali, also watched the Sky video and agrees with this assessment. "There were just a few boxes on the floor, not enough to hold thousands of documents," Rodet says, although she adds that experts won't know the true extent of the damage until the library's archivists return to Timbuktu from Bamako and inventory the collection.
If the estimated 30,000 manuscripts in the collection did indeed escape, that would be very good news, because they are a priceless and irreplaceable historical record, researchers say. "This is a legacy that goes back at least to the 15th century," says Marieta Harper, a librarian who specializes in African history at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. Among the documents, adds archaeologist Kevin MacDonald of University College London's Institute of Archaeology, are some very rare copies of the Tarikh al-Sudan (History of the Sudan), a chronicle of the Islamic Songhai Empire, which ruled much of West Africa during the 15th and 16th centuries. The collection also includes many old copies of the Koran, some of which include calligraphy in gold ink, as well as "all the sorts of texts you would need to run a medieval Islamic university," MacDonald says.
The jihadists, who reportedly destroyed hundreds of Timbuktu's famous tombs and mausoleums of Sufi saints because they were offensive to their rival Salafist branch of Islam, would probably have found little that was objectionable in the Ahmed Baba collections—if they had bothered to look closely, MacDonald says. In addition to the chronicles and Korans, he says, the collection included texts on astronomy, medicine, law, and other academic subjects. "You would have to be a pretty careful and educated jihadist to know what was objectionable and what wasn't."
But MacDonald and other researchers say that it may take weeks before the extent of the damage, or lack of it, is fully known. Telephone lines in Timbuktu have been down for many days and electricity cut off. The Malian government now needs to clarify the situation as soon as possible so that scholars inside and outside of Mali can be reassured about the security of this ancient archive, adds archaeologist Susan McIntosh of Rice University in Houston, Texas. "It is very important that Malian government officials who have actually seen the manuscripts that are safely stored in Bamako make an official statement about the number of manuscripts under their protection," McIntosh says.
*Clarification 11:50 a.m., 31 January: Kevin MacDonald's original description of the manuscripts at the Ahmed Baba library has been modified slightly from the original version of this story, for greater accuracy.