UPDATE: A report by Time says that manuscripts in one library earlier reported destroyed are safe, having been smuggled out of Timbuktu before insurgents took control of the city.News is leaking out of Mali that Islamic insurgents set fire to and destroyed two buildings that housed one of the greatest cultural treasures of mankind: The Manuscripts of Timbuktu.
Extent of the damage is unclear, but news reports are indicating that damage to the libraries was extensive or total. Here is the Guardian:
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.The "Library" of Timbuktu wasn't a single institution, but rather a collection of collections of rare and precious handwritten manuscripts on topics both religious and secular. Recent efforts had gathered thousands of these manuscripts into two buildings for safekeeping and stufy.
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.
The manuscripts were and are considered by priceless part of the human patrimony.
In recent years, they have acquired a symbolic power as a testament to the wealth, strength and endurance of Africans and African culture.