January 2013 | Nate Pedersen

Timbuktu's Ancient Manuscripts May Have Been Saved

Timbuktu_Mosque_Sankore.jpgFrench and Malian troops reclaimed the historic city of Timbuktu yesterday from militant Islamic extremists.  Timbuktu has been a center of culture and learning for centuries and the city is famous for the width and breadth of its ancient manuscripts.  As was feared by historians and scholars around the world, the militants torched the city's recently renovated library and research center, the Ahmed Baba Institute, as they retreated.

In a twisted bit of irony, the Institute held early handwritten copies of the Koran amongst other gems of medieval Islamic culture.

But all may not be lost.

While conflicting reports continue to surface from the war-zone, TIME reported yesterday that a large-scale rescue operation may have been conducted last year in advance of the militant occupation.  Thousands of ancient manuscripts may have been removed from the Ahmed Baba Institute and hidden in a safe-house somewhere else in the city.  TIME's informants would not go on record, however, with the location of the manuscripts citing fears of a vengeful return by Islamic extremists.  TIME's informants also indicated that some less-important manuscripts had been purposefully left behind in the library to deceive the militants about the removal.

If these reports are true, it would be an enormous relief to the global community of scholars - and to anyone around the world with an interest in the preservation of history and culture.

It also wouldn't be the first time Malians had successfully hidden manuscripts in private households, a rich tradition in Timbuktu history.  Houses throughout the city are notorious for their treasure troves of uncataloged ancient manuscripts passed down through the centuries as family heirlooms.

[Images of Timbuktu and ancient TImuktu manuscripts from Wikipedia]