Retreating Rebels In Mali May Have Destroyed Ancient Texts

French troops entered the legendary outpost of Timbuktu in Mai to push out Islamist militants. Many valuable artifacts were destroyed when militants first took the city last summer. There is now concern for the fate of tens of thousands of manuscripts, which capture the cultural history of the region. Renee Montagne talks to Shamil Jeppie, senior researcher with the University of Cape Town's Institute for Humanities in Africa, about what historical treasures were at risk in Timbuktu.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

And as we've been reporting this morning, the Islamist forces in Mali, linked to al Qaida, have just been driven out of the desert city of Timbuktu by French and Malian forces.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

For months, the fundamentalists have systematically destroyed ancient religious sites, targeting, especially, the tombs mystic Sufi saints, and they continued their destruction, even as they were leaving the city.

MONTAGNE: Word from Timbuktu is that as they retreated, they torched a library holding tens of thousands of historic documents, written as far back as the 13th century.

Though it's not yet known how many of the ancient texts have been lost, that library, the Ahmed Baba Institute, was built by the South African government as part of the Timbuktu Manuscripts Project, a preservation program led by Shamil Jeppie. He teaches at the University of Cape Town where we reached him.

Welcome to the program.

SHAMIL JEPPIE: Thank you so much.

MONTAGNE: These documents, what exactly are they? They're not all religious, right?

JEPPIE: No. No. Well, I mean, the most beautifully illustrated and illuminated are the old Qurans and many of them are liturgical Sufi documents text. You know, prayers and grammar, and text that would've been used in the educational system in the informal classes held at the feet of teachers and so on.

But they talk of legal issues, social history of the region; you have basic mathematics texts and some fairly advanced scientific text.

MONTAGNE: I have read that some of these documents also contain poetry. And I mean they're cultural treasures and every respect. But they would not have had figures in them or be representing humans, which is a thing we've all come to think that very fundamentalist Islamist don't like. So why are they destroying what is their own precious cultural heritage?

JEPPIE: That's what we don't understand. So there must have been destruction of the building out of spite. You know, we're getting out of here, let's do maximum damage to whatever we can in the city. That's one explanation. The other is just the kind of vandalism that goes with uneducated barbarians that I have seen these people to be.

MONTAGNE: How have these fragile, you know, documents - how have they managed to survive so far; some of them, centuries?

JEPPIE: This is not the first time that you have a crisis in Timbuktu. There was an insurgency in the '90s and then in the early '60s, and then, of course, throughout much of the 18th and 19th century there was (unintelligible) much chaos and the region.

I'm particularly interested in this Northwest African tradition of archiving and constituting collections; how is it that families came to keep libraries in treasuries, items. What are the intellectual and mental processes and so on? And we have been told stories of them burying manuscript collections for decades, in fact, until they felt safe and secure enough to take them out.

And this is what happened in the late '60s and '70s when the Ahmed Baba library first was established. And then there was a project to collect them from families, and families would trade a couple of items for a goat or a camel or a cow. And so, there was a bartering process, a moment where it all went to the state project.

And then some of the families said, now let us do our own thing and they came to constitute their own collections and their own libraries. And these libraries are not centralized, so they are in families' homes and so on. And the collections are spread out over the town and the region.

MONTAGNE: It must be so sad to think about this.

JEPPIE: That's why I don't want to entertain the thought that there is destruction and fire, and what have you. Maybe I'm just - I just don't want to entertain the thought of this destruction.

MONTAGNE: Shamil Jippie is senior researcher at the University of Cape Town's Institutes for Humanities in Africa. Thank you very much for taking the time to talk with us.

JEPPIE: Thank you, indeed.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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