Timbuktu medieval manuscripts on astronomy and mathematics (Image via wikipedia.org)

Timbuktu medieval manuscripts on astronomy and mathematics (Image via wikipedia.org)

On Monday, Hyperallergic reported that Islamist rebels set fire to two historic libraries in the Malian city of Timbuktu (a UNESCO world heritage site), just as French forces and the Malian army pushed them out. The rebels may have destroyed 2,000 of the Ahmed Baba Institute’s volumes of medieval-era scholarship, but there is some good news: many of the archives’ treasures had earlier been removed to private libraries and collections.

Reuters reports that the majority of Timbuktu’s ancient manuscripts outside of the torched libraries appear to be unharmed, even after the city’s 10-month-long occupation by rebel fighters. Some 300,000 texts in Timbuktu and the surrounding region are “believed to be safe.” That’s 95 percent of the total documents, according to a Malian source.

Decentralizing the documents, which range from academic treatises to commercial contracts, law books, and medical texts, kept them safe. After Tuareg rebel fighters entered Timbuktu on April 1, curators and collectors began to remove texts from the libraries and “distributed them around,” Cape Town University professor Shamil Jeppie said. The New Yorker reports that 50,000 manuscripts are housed in 32 family libraries that remain protected.

The Islamic fighters who occupied Timbuktu are violent iconoclasts. The manuscripts were destroyed because they cover “areas of knowledge” like “anatomy, women’s rights, and music” that are traditionally despised by zealots, The New Yorker explains. The fighters have also destroyed pagan stone carvings in Morocco’s High Atlas mountains and a Sufi mausoleum in Tunisia.

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Kyle Chayka

Kyle Chayka was senior editor at Hyperallergic. He is a cultural critic based in Brooklyn and has contributed to publications including ARTINFO, ARTnews, Modern Painters, LA Weekly,...

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