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Timbuktu, ancient seat of Islamic learning

Published on NewsOK Modified: January 29, 2013 at 10:57 am •  Published: January 29, 2013

SEVARE, Mali (AP) — Timbuktu, the fabled desert city where retreating Muslim extremists destroyed ancient manuscripts, was a center of Islamic learning hundreds of years before Columbus landed in the Americas.

It is not known how many of the priceless documents were destroyed by al Qaida-linked fighters who set ablaze a state-of-the-art library built with South African funding to conserve the brittle, camel-hide bound manuscripts from the harshness of the Sahara Desert climate and preserve them so researchers can study them.

News of the destruction came on Monday from the mayor of Timbuktu. With its Islamic treasures and centuries-old mud-walled buildings including an iconic mosque, Timbuktu is a U.N.-designated World Heritage Site.

The damage caused by the fleeing Islamists was limited, but irreplaceable treasures were lost.

Most of the manuscripts, which are as many as 900 years old, were gathered between the 1980s and 2000 from all over Mali for the Ahmed Baba Institute for Higher Learning and Islamic Research, which moved into its new home in 2009.

The library held about 30,000 manuscripts of which only about one third had been catalogued, according to its Web site. The world may never know what it has lost.

The manuscripts cover subjects ranging from science, astrology and medicine to history, theology, grammar and geography. All are in Arabic script, in the Arabic language and African languages.

They date back to the late 12th century, the start of a 300-year golden age for Timbuktu as a spiritual and intellectual capital for the propagation of Islam on the continent.

Michael Covitt, chairman of the Malian Manuscript Foundation, called them "the most important find since the Dead Sea Scrolls."

Tens of thousands more manuscripts — no one knows how many — were kept at other libraries and private homes in Timbuktu. Some are believed to have been secreted against the Islamist fighters, who began their desecration of the city by systematically razing the 15th-century mausoleums of several Sufi saints in July. Among the tombs they destroyed is that of Sidi Mahmoudou, a saint who died in 955, according to a UNESCO website.

The International Criminal Court at The Hague has described the destruction of Timbuktu's heritage as a possible war crime. Timbuktu has been attacked and conquered in the past, most recently in 1591 by Moroccan troops who sacked the city and burned libraries. But the city recovered and gained fame as a place where people from different races and creeds could live together harmoniously.

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