Mali’s Centuries-Old Timbuktu Scrolls May Have Survived

A “treasure” of ancient manuscripts in Mali’s historic city Timbuktu may have survived a fire caused by fighting between French troops and Islamist militants, according to the institute housing the documents.

Television footage of the blaze at the Ahmed Baba Institute’s new building suggests it is “still in good condition,” Mauro Nobili, a Cape Town-based researcher at the center, said in a phone interview today. Most of the center’s 20,000 documents, ranging from marriage certificates to correspondence between 13th century rulers, are safe as they were not stored in the building, he said.

“Of course we are worried,” Nobili said. “The amount of the material and its value is amazing. But from what we can tell, the manuscripts have not been touched.”

Timbuktu Mayor Halle Ousmane Cisse, speaking yesterday in Mali’s capital, Bamako, said Islamist fighters had destroyed the centuries-old manuscripts before fleeing a French assault. French, Malian and African forces are battling insurgents in the West African nation’s desert north, which Western governments say may become a haven for Islamist militants.

Malian forces control Timbuktu, while French forces surround the city, French military spokesman Thierry Burkhard said yesterday.

Timbuktu’s wealth of manuscripts, its three ancient mosques and 16 mausoleums dating back to the 15th century led to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization designating the oasis town on the banks of the Niger river as a World Heritage Site in 1990.

Arabic Script

The scrolls, written in Arabic and in African languages using Arabic script, helped dispel the “myth” of a purely oral African history, Nobili said.

“It’s an important slice of documentation on West African history, spanning from religious and social matters, to things like history, astronomy, mathematics and geography,” he said.

The documents destroyed in the fire were being restored at the time and probably number about 100, Nobili said. While electronic copies were made of some of them, much of that data was stored on site, he said.

Islamist group Ansar ud-Din in July destroyed the tombs of saints and imposed Sharia law after seizing the city. They didn’t harm the manuscripts because many of them documented the area’s Islamic history, Nobili said.

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