The Ahmed Baby Institute in Timbuktu (image via Wikipedia)

The Ahmed Baba Institute in Timbuktu (image via Wikipedia)

Islamist rebels set fire to two libraries containing tens of thousands of historic manuscripts on their way out of Timbuktu on Saturday. The full extent of the damage isn’t known yet, but it seems probable that a good chunk of African medieval history has been destroyed.

Advancing French forces and the Malian army arrived in Timbuktu that same day, the Guardian reports, but not in time to stop the rebels’ destruction. The fighters, who are allied with Al Qaeda, torched the manuscripts’s two primary repositories — the Ahmed Baba Institute, which was built only three years ago, and another, older library, as well as the town hall, the governor’s office, and the home of a member of parliament.

“It’s true. They have burned the manuscripts,” Timbuktu’s mayor, Hallé Ousmani Cissé, told the paper. “This is terrible news. The manuscripts were a part not only of Mali’s heritage but the world’s heritage.”

The manuscripts date mostly from medieval times but have only come back to light and received increased attention in the past few decades. Encompassing everything from law books and poetry to religious texts and commercial documents, they’re mostly written in Arabic, with some in local African languages. The texts illustrate a period of intellectual flourishing in Timbuktu, and their rediscovery has played a large part in refuting the common misconception that African culture was only oral, not literate. According to the explanation for an exhibition called The Legacy of Timbuktu at the International Museum of Muslim Cultures:

These ancient documents reveal that a sophisticated literate culture flourished in the city of Timbuktu on the edge of the Sahara Desert beginning in the 13th century and lasting more than 700 years. A crossroads of international caravan commerce, including the book trade, Timbuktu was also a celebrated center of learning, attracting scholars, and thousands of students and teachers from many countries and background.

The Ahmed Baba Institute takes its name from a great 16th- and 17th-century African scholar who wrote some 70 books. There’s more about him, the history of Timbuktu, and the manuscripts, in this illuminating essay at the Understanding Slavery Initiative.

How many of the manuscripts — which were still in the process of being studied, preserved, and digitized in Timbuktu — survived, and in what condition, remains unknown at the moment. The city is currently without electricity, water, fuel, or phone connection; the mayor’s information came from someone who had recently left town. Timbuktu has faced incredible devastation in the past year: tombs, Sufi shrines, and a 15th-century mosque have been destroyed by rebels, prompting UNESCO to place the town on its list of endangered world heritage sites last June. It’s a relief that French and Malian forces have now taken control there, but with a US official saying that the intervention in Mali could take years to succeed, the entire country seems to be facing a sadly, increasingly familiar story: its entire artistic heritage at risk.

Jillian Steinhauer is a former senior editor of Hyperallergic. She writes largely about the intersection of art and politics but has also been known to write at length about cats. She won the 2014 Best...