On Monday, as France announced that it had retaken the historic desert city of Timbuktu in northern Mali, reports indicated that the Islamist extremists who had controlled the city since April set fire to a library containing thousands of priceless manuscripts on their way out.
“They torched all the important ancient manuscripts," Timbuktu mayor Ousmane Halle said. " The ancient books of geography and science. It is the history of Timbuktu ."
A worker at the new Ahmed Baba Institute — which held more than 40,000 scholarly manuscripts dating back to the 12th century — told Sky News that more than 3,000 manuscripts had been destroyed while others had been stolen.
Sky correspondent Alex Crawford — the first journalist to enter Timbuktu — reported that the manuscripts were " all either burned by the Jihadists or they have disappeared. "
But Vivienne Walt of Time reports that the massive cultural destruction did not occur because preservationists worked for months to hide the trove of documents.
“The documents which had been there are safe, they were not burned,” Mali’s presidential aide on Islamic affairs Mahmoud Zouber told Time. “They were put in a very safe place. I can guarantee you. The manuscripts are in total security.”
Early last year thousands of manuscripts were taken out of the Ahmed Baba Institute and placed in a safe house. Walt reports that 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 militants still trashed the remaining documents and the institute's state-of-the-art preservation equipment (not to mention tombs of Muslim saints), but the extent of the damage doesn't appear to be the " world tragedy " that was indicated on Monday.
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