Islamist militants fleeing from Timbuktu in the war-torn nation of Mali have destroyed a vast cache of documents dating back to the 12th century. The documents were torched by extremists along with a mosque, the Ahmed Baba Institute, and other Muslim structures. (Islam in Mali is moderate, and mostly Sunni or Sufi. The country is 90% Muslim, 5% Christian, and 5% animist.)
Although the precious manuscripts were in the process of being digitized, thousands are now lost forever.
“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.
Along with the terrible human toll taken by the war, the cultural cost is going to be great given the historical significance of the region.
UPDATE 1/30/13: This story continues to develop, and I may have one answer to the discrepancy I’ve seen among the various number of documents lost or destroyed. It now appears that some manuscripts were indeed burned (perhaps that’s where the “3000″ number comes in?), but some were moved before the fall of the city to the militants, and some were carried away by the militants themselves. There appears to be no doubt that many documents were destroyed, but there’s a possibility that some may be recovered. The New Yorker and The Globe and Mail each have more.