The latest estimates, though, suggest that about 2,000 manuscripts
were torched, while the remainder of the estimated 30,000 at the
A Written Legacy
The written word is deeply
rooted in Timbuktu's rich history. The city emerged as a wealthy center
of trade, Islam, and learning during the 13th century, attracting a
number of Sufi religious scholars. They in turn took on students,
forming schools affiliated with's Timbuktu's three main mosques.
scholars imported parchment and vellum manuscripts via the caravan
system that connected northern Africa with the Mediterranean and Arabia.
Wealthy families had the documents copied and illuminated by local
scribes, building extensive libraries containing works of religion, art,
mathematics, medicine, astronomy, history, geography, and culture.
manuscripts are the city's real gold," said Mohammed Aghali, a tour
guide from Timbuktu. "The manuscripts, our mosques, and our
history—these are our treasures. Without them, what is Timbuktu?"
isn't the first time that an occupying army has threatened Timbuktu's
cultural heritage. The Moroccan army invaded the city in 1591 to take
control of the gold trade. In the process of securing the city, they
killed or deported most of Timbuktu's scholars, including the city's
most famous teacher, Ahmed Baba al Massufi, who was held in exile in
Marrakesh for many years and forced to teach in a pasha's court. He
finally returned to Timbuktu in 1611, and it is for him that the Ahmed
Baba Institute was named.
Hiding the Texts
addition to the Ahmed Baba Institute, Timbuktu is home to more than 60
private libraries, some with collections containing several thousand
manuscripts and others with only a precious handful.
Ahmed, a reporter based in Timbuktu who recently fled to Bamako, said
Monday that nearly all the libraries, including the world-renowned Mamma
Haidara and the Fondo Kati libraries, had secreted their collections
before the Islamist forces had taken the city.
"The people here
have long memories," he said. "They are used to hiding their
manuscripts. They go into the desert and bury them until it is safe."
(from National Geographic)
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