Timbuktu has been an important center of Islamic learning, scientific research, and legal scholarship for centuries. The city’s medieval manuscript collections are regarded as some of the best in the Islamic world. Because of its libraries and architectural sites, Timbuktu is recognized as a World Heritage site by UNESCO.
As French and Malian forces approached Timbuktu last week, reports circulated of militants burning manuscripts. Many observers feared that the famous manuscript collections might be completely destroyed.
Now we know that although some destruction did occur, most of Timbuktu’s manuscripts have survived. “When the moment of danger came,” according to the New York Times, “Ali Imam Ben Essayouti knew just what to do. The delicate, unbound parchment manuscripts in the 14th-century mosque he leads had already survived hundreds of years in the storied city of Timbuktu. He was not about to allow its latest invaders, Tuareg nationalist rebels and Islamic extremists from across the region, to destroy them now. So he gingerly bundled the 8,000 volumes in sackcloth, carefully stacked them in crates, then quietly moved them to a bunker in an undisclosed location.” The New York Times reports on the hiding of the manuscripts.
The close call for the Timbuktu manuscripts is a reminder of how important humanities digitization projects are for the preservation of historic archival collections.