"Islamist insurgents retreating from the ancient Saharan city of Timbuktu have set fire to a library containing thousands of priceless ancient manuscripts, some dating back to the 13th century, in what the town's mayor described as a "devastating blow" to world heritage."
In 2009, I have investigated a very tiny part of the Timbuktu manuscripts, of which not even 1% has been digitized, and wrote about it in my book "A New History of the Humanities" (Oxford Univ. Press, 2013, in press, originally published in Dutch as "De Vergeten Wetenschappen", 2010). There is still so much to learn about the immensely rich culture of the Songhai empire, and it now seems all gone forever.
Here is a small excerpt on what I wrote about the Timbuktu manuscripts in my book:
"Over the last fifty years a huge wealth of manuscripts from the Niger Valley has surfaced. They were written in Arabic but also in Tuareg (Tamasheq), Songhai and Fulani. The manuscripts cover a large number of subjects, from musicology to history, and from astronomy to mathematics. Especially the historical chronicles are of immense value. The two greatest chronicles are the Tarikh al-fattash from Djenné, containing a history of the Songhai Empire, and its continuation, the Tarikh al-Sudan from Timbuktu. Djenné and Timbuktu were among the major intellectual centres in Africa. Djenné was well known because of its architectural opulence (including its world famous mud brick mosque) while Timbuktu had the biggest mosque schools and libraries south of the Sahara. In 1550 in the Descrittione dell’Africa the Moroccan-Andalusian traveller and merchant Leo Africanus recounted about the fabulous wealth of Timbuktu. The city maintained contacts with book markets in Morocco and Spain, and the work of Ibn Khaldun as well as many other writings were in stock.
The chronicle Tarikh al-fattash was written by three generations of the Kati family, whose family library was recently rediscovered. Mahmud Kati started the chronicle in around 1519 and it was completed by his grandson in 1591. It gave a summary history of the Songhai Empire up to the Moroccan conquest in 1591. Like the work of Polybius, the contemporaneous part of the chronicle is based on the personal experience principle, whereas the descriptions of earlier historical periods are based on centuries-old oral transmission which, as was normal in this region, was kept alive by the family itself. The Tarikh al-Sudan by Abderrahman al-Sadi in Timbuktu, also covered the later history of the Songhai Empire up to 1655 in a similar fashion.
This form of writing chronicles, based on a combination of personal experience and oral transmission, spread from Djenné and Timbuktu to the south and west. And there, during the course of the eighteenth century, the long-existing orally transmitted lists of kings, biographies, tribal genealogies and local chronicles were written down in Arabic or one of the local languages. For instance the Kitab al-Ghunja, a chronicle of the Kingdom of Gonja in the northern Gold Coast (present-day Ghana), was one of the most compelling examples of this tradition.
The chronicles discussed above are only the tip of the iceberg. Many manuscripts from Senegal, Ghana, Nigeria, Cameroon and other regions have not yet been inventoried. The number of manuscripts, generally kept by families, in the area around Timbuktu alone is estimated at 700,000. A few thousand documents have been catalogued by the Ahmed Baba Institute but they are currently under threat. The vast majority of manuscripts are still waiting to be accessed, and the most urgent matter is to rescue and conserve the ones already known to exist. Slowly but surely it is becoming clear that African written culture has been underestimated for centuries. One reason for this, and not the least important, can be ascribed to European colonial prejudices."
UPDATE 28/1/2013: Read here about the fate of the Ahmed Baba Institute.
And read here about the secret race to save Timbuktu's manuscripts.
Sure enough, it's absolutely unacceptable what the Islamist insurgents have done, but it's also unacceptable that (apart from South Africa and a couple of other countries) virtually no country has done anything so save these precious manuscripts that have been under threat for more than half a century! It's a real scandal...
Some might say there is too much of value to protect in this world. But there are only a few dozens of places on earth that deserve the highest protection by all nations. I believe Timbuktu is among those places.