Islamist insurgents retreating from Timbuktu set fire to a library containing thousands of priceless historic manuscripts, according to the Saharan town's mayor, in an incident he described as a "devastating blow" to world heritage. Hallé Ousmani Cissé told the Guardian that al-Qaida-allied fighters on Saturday torched two buildings that held the manuscripts, some of which dated back to the 13th century...The incident reminds me of how Spanish Catholic priests destroyed the illuminated codices of the Americas:
The manuscripts were held in two separate locations: an ageing library and a new South African-funded research centre, the Ahmad Babu Institute, less than a mile away. Completed in 2009 and named after a 17th-century Timbuktu scholar, the centre used state-of-the-art techniques to study and conserve the crumbling scrolls...
The manuscripts had survived for centuries in Timbuktu, on the remote south-west fringe of the Sahara desert. They were hidden in wooden trunks, buried in boxes under the sand and in caves. When French colonial rule ended in 1960, Timbuktu residents held preserved manuscripts in 60-80 private libraries.
The vast majority of the texts were written in Arabic. A few were in African languages, such as Songhai, Tamashek and Bambara. There was even one in Hebrew. They covered a diverse range of topics including astronomy, poetry, music, medicine and women's rights. The oldest dated from 1204.
Seydou Traoré, who has worked at the Ahmed Baba Institute since 2003, and fled shortly before the rebels arrived, said only a fraction of the manuscripts had been digitised. "They cover geography, history and religion. We had one in Turkish. We don't know what it said."
He said the manuscripts were important because they exploded the myth that "black Africa" had only an oral history. "You just need to look at the manuscripts to realise how wrong this is."
There were many such books in existence at the time of the Spanish conquest of Yucatán in the 16th century, but they were destroyed in bulk by the Conquistadors and priests soon after. In particular, all those in Yucatán were ordered destroyed by Bishop Diego de Landa in July of 1562. De Landa wrote: "We found a large number of books in these characters and, as they contained nothing in which were not to be seen as superstition and lies of the devil, we burned them all, which they (the Maya) regretted to an amazing degree, and which caused them much affliction." Such codices were primary written records of Maya civilization, together with the many inscriptions on stone monuments and stelae that survived. However, their range of subject matter in all likelihood embraced more topics than those recorded in stone and buildings, and was more like what is found on painted ceramics (the so-called 'ceramic codex'). Alonso de Zorita wrote that in 1540 he saw numerous such books in the Guatemalan highlands that “...recorded their history for more than eight hundred years back, and that were interpreted for me by very ancient Indians.” (Zorita 1963, 271-2). Fr. Bartolomé de las Casas lamented that when found, such books were destroyed: "These books were seen by our clergy, and even I saw part of those that were burned by the monks, apparently because they thought [they] might harm the Indians in matters concerning religion, since at that time they were at the beginning of their conversion." The last codices destroyed were those of Tayasal, Guatemala in 1697, the last city conquered in America. With their destruction, the opportunity for insight into some key areas of Maya life has been greatly diminished.Addendum: Here's more information from the report in the Los Angeles Times:
The library of the Ahmed Baba Institute held about 40,000 of the estimated 100,000 ancient manuscripts in Timbuktu...Second addendum: Time offers the view that the destruction may have been minimized -
“It’s the greatest loss of the written word in Africa since the destruction of the library of Alexandria,” Park said, referring to the great library of ancient Egypt. “It’s the destruction of information that was unknown and will now never be known.”..
Experts say the manuscripts included a wide array of court records and documents revealing international relations in the ancient world, giving them importance beyond Mali itself. The records may also have offered a window into the selling of slaves across the Sahara, shedding light on the roots of the trade. Many of them had not yet been read, Park said.
In interviews with TIME on Monday, preservationists said that in a large-scale rescue operation early last year, shortly before the militants seized control of Timbuktu, thousands of manuscripts were hauled out of the Ahmed Baba Institute to a safe house elsewhere. Realizing that the documents might be prime targets for pillaging or vindictive attacks from Islamic extremists, staff left behind just a small portion of them, perhaps out of haste, but also to conceal the fact that the center had been deliberately emptied. “The documents which had been there are safe, they were not burned,” said Mahmoud Zouber, Mali’s presidential aide on Islamic affairs, a title he retains despite the overthrow of the former President, his boss, in a military coup a year ago; preserving Timbuktu’s manuscripts was a key project of his office. By phone from Bamako on Monday night, Zouber told TIME, “They were put in a very safe place. I can guarantee you. The manuscripts are in total security.”I hope this is true.
That was confirmed too by Shamil Jeppie, director of the Timbuktu Manuscripts Project at the University of Cape Town, who told TIME on Monday night that “there were a few items in the Ahmed Baba library, but the rest were kept away.” The center, financed by the South African government as a favored project by then President Thabo Mbeki, who championed reviving Africa’s historical culture, housed state-of-the-art equipment to preserve and photograph hundreds of thousands of pages, some of which had gold illumination, astrological charts and sophisticated mathematical formulas.