Timbuktu Locals Said to Have Rescued Ancient Texts

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Marco Werman: In Mali, residents of Timbuktu are celebrating the liberation of their ancient city. French and Malian troops reclaimed the city yesterday. It had been under the control of Islamist rebels for the past 10 months. Preservationists though continue to worry abut the fate of ancient texts that have been housed at Timbuktu's Ahmed Baba Institute. The rebels torched in the institute as they fled the city, possibly destroying tens of thousands of priceless historical documents. Vivienne Walt is following the story for Time Magazine. There seems to be, Vivienne, conflicting reports about the fate of those documents. What are your sources telling you? Are they safe or are they destroyed?

Vivienne Walt: Most of my sources in Timbuktu have been telling me for months that they have hidden them away and although they don't, they loathe to discuss this publicly and I vowed not to publish anything until Timbuktu had fallen, I really had been told for months that they were fairly safe. Last night, most of my sources told me that they had pulled out almost all of the documents from the Ahmed Baba Center, the major library in Timbuktu, and hidden them in a safe house elsewhere.

Werman: Now I've been hearing comments from the mayor of Timbuktu, who actually I believe is not there, he's in the capital, Bamako, but he seems to believe that many of the documents were destroyed.

Walt: Well, I spoke to the mayor late last night after I'd spoken to the Timbuktu preservationists. Now, the mayor is, I must say, not been involved directly in the preservation efforts, nor was he involved in the rescue efforts. And he did concede that he knew that many of the manuscripts had been removed, although some of them had been left behind. As far as I could understand from my sources, some of them had been left behind partly because they were in such a rush to get them out of there and also because they didn't want to make it look as if the center had been totally emptied deliberately.

Werman: Right, so any word on those documents that remained in the library? Because this is a new library built in 2010 and those documents that didn't make it out presumably are they destroyed or do we just not know?

Walt: Nobody has actually taken an exact inventory. And part of the problem is that the telephone lines to Timbuktu are still cut. People are actually cycling to the nearest village where there is a telephone line so that they can call people in Bamako to tell them what they're seeing. So they are going to need a few days to piece it all together, but I think we can safely say that yes, there certainly were documents that were destroyed, maybe hundreds of documents, but thousands nonetheless were saved thanks to the bravery and the determination of some of the Timbuktu residents who regard these documents as their most absolutely precious family heirlooms and local cultural history.

Werman: Now one thing many people in Timbuktu, in Mali, all over the world knew about these documents before the risk from the extremists came into Timbuktu was that there was a lot of neglect. They were not very well cared for. Do you think this incident, the risks that these documents faced and now they seem safe relatively speaking, will that neglect change? Will there be greater care taken now to preserve these documents?

Walt: Well it's astonishing when you go to Timbuktu and you see really that 90% of them are being stashed away in rickety closets in somebody's mud house in the middle of the desert. It's just you know, one's mouth drops open. And it's gonna take a lot of money and in some ways political compromise to get these documents into the place where they really are properly curated and looked after as they would any other precious museum piece, which is what they are. The real problem is that the people of the North have absolutely no faith and no trust in the people in Bamako, and hence there was really a bit of a political battle as to where they should be housed. And they would never have gotten agreement from the people in the north to house them in Bamako, which of course, would be a lot safer.

Werman: Incredible. You know, here's something I don't quite understand and maybe you can help us out, Vivienne, knowing that fanaticism that doesn't always make sense, I mean the Ahmed Baba collection contained numerous decades old Korans, some more than a century old. They include evidence that the Islamic world made important contributions to astronomy, and mathematics and history. Why would Islamic militants then burn them?

Walt: Honestly, there is no logical reason why the Jihadists would want to destroy these manuscripts. They are the Islamic history of Africa. They prove, in fact, that Africa had a very rich literary tradition at the height of the Renaissance era and even before, things which really Western historians have neglected for many years. So Africans and especially Muslim Africans have every reason to preserve and champion these documents. So I think that it's more reflexive response really to the documents rather than any real logical reason why they should want them gone or destroyed.

Werman: Vivienne Wall with Time Magazine telling us what we know abut the ancient manuscripts at the Ahmed Baba Institute and Library in Timbuktu. Vivienne, always good to speak with you. Thank you.

Walt: You're welcome.