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A public appeal has been launched to save the hundreds of thousands of ancient manuscripts smuggled out of Timbuktu during the crisis in Mali, which are now facing a more insidious threat: moisture damage.

Dating back over 700 years, the fragile manuscripts range from poetry to commerce records, and are from Andalusia and Southern Europe, Arabia, Egypt, Morocco,and Arab trading ports on the Indian Ocean as well as the region of Timbuktu itself. Initially reported to have been destroyed by Islamist rebels in a fire, the 300,000 manuscripts were evacuated from Timbuktu by librarians and archivists.

Stored in the metal boxes used for their evacuation, the texts are already showing signs of damage and exposure to moisture, and experts have launched an appeal to raise $100,000 to help preserve them. The IndieGoGo campaign from Libraries in Exile is asking the public to donate money to save the manuscripts: $30 would preserve a single manuscript, while $9,000 would protect an entire footlocker. Read more.

AN audacious rescue of hundreds of thousands of ancient handwritten books and manuscripts from Islamist rebels in Mali was made possible by secret help from German diplomats, it emerged yesterday.

Abdel Kader Haidara, the Malian academic who oversaw the operation to smuggle the documents to safety before rebels torched Timbuktu’s libraries, relied on the Germans for expert help and funding. Embassy staff paid for numerous private car trips to ferry the 4000 most important manuscripts dating back to the 9th Century to safety in Bamako, the capital, concealed under cargos of lettuce and fruit.

While the French sent troops, the Germans sent cultural attaches armed with secure storage boxes to preserve the delicate papers that are the only record of centuries-old writings on astronomy, religion and philosophy from the region. Read more.

The preservationists of Timbuktu’s centuries-old artifacts have been holding their breath for weeks, waiting for the moment when the French military would seize back Mali’s ancient northern capital from the Islamic militants who have occupied it for 10 months. At stake were the city’s most precious treasures: tens of thousands of centuries-old, priceless calligraphed manuscripts, whose fate under the jihadists’ rule was deeply uncertain.

On Monday, that moment finally came — and by nightfall, the state of Timbuktu’s treasures was as confused as it had been before.

When Malian and French soldiers rolled into town in armored vehicles early Monday, they found what the preservationists had most dreaded: Timbuktu’s new Ahmed Baba Institute, an expensive adobe construction opened in 2010 — the city’s splashiest international project in years — had been torched by militants of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb last Thursday as they prepared to flee the French advance. From Bamako, Timbuktu’s Mayor Hallé Ousmane Cissé, who had fled his city nearly four weeks ago, told journalists that the militants had burned the center’s collection of about 40,000 ancient manuscripts, some of the 300,000 or so historic documents stashed in libraries in Timbuktu and the villages around it, mostly as family heirlooms. “The manuscripts were a part not only of Mali’s heritage but the world’s heritage,” Cissé told the Guardian

That is not so, according to those who’ve worked for months to keep the documents safe. Read more.

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.

Hallé Ousmani Cissé told the Guardian that al-Qaida-allied fighters on Saturday torched two buildings that held the manuscripts, some of which dated back to the 13th century. They also burned down the town hall, the governor’s office and an MP’s residence, and shot dead a man who was celebrating the arrival of the French military.

French troops and the Malian army reached the gates of Timbuktu on Saturday and secured the town’s airport. But they appear to have got there too late to rescue the leather-bound manuscripts that were a unique record of sub-Saharan Africa’s rich medieval history. The rebels attacked the airport on Sunday, the mayor said. Read more.

UN cultural agency UNESCO on Tuesday urged Malian and French forces fighting in Mali to protect ancient cultural sites during air raids and ground attacks.

"I ask all armed forces to make every effort to protect the cultural heritage of the country, which has already been severely damaged," UNESCO Director General Irina Bokova said in a statement.

French warplanes have been hitting targets in various parts of the country since Friday in support of Malian forces seeking to dislodge Islamist rebels who last year seized control of its vast desert north.

The rebels have since fled three key cities in the north, including Timbuktu, a UNESCO World Heritage site at a desert crossroads that was an ancient centre of learning. Read more.

Heavily armed Islamists bulldozed the tombs of three local Sufi saints near Mali’s desert city of Timbuktu on Thursday, residents said, the latest in a series of attacks in the rebel-held north that critics say threaten its cultural heritage.

“They arrived aboard six or seven vehicles, heavily armed,” said Garba Maiga, a resident of Timbuktu, listed by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site for its ancient shrines. “They flattened everything with a bulldozer and pulled up the skeletal remains.”

Residents said the tombs destroyed included those of local saints Cheick Nouh, Cheick Ousmane el Kabir, and Cheick Mohamed Foulani Macina, several kilometers (miles) outside of the city gates. They said the rebels were from Ansar Dine, one of a mixture of Islamist groups now in control of northern Mali. Read more.

DJENNE-DJENNO, one of the best-known archaeological sites in sub-Saharan Africa, spreads over several acres of rutted fields near the present city of Djenne in central Mali. The ruts are partly caused by erosion, but they’re also scars from decades of digging, by archaeologists in search of history and looters looking for art to sell.

When I was there last fall, a few archaeology students were in evidence. These days, with Mali in the throes of political chaos, it’s unlikely that anyone is doing much work at all at the site, though history and art are visible everywhere. Ancient pottery shards litter the ground. Here and there the mouths of large clay urns, of a kind once used for food storage or human burial, emerge from the earth’s surface, the vessels themselves still submerged.

The image of an abandoned battlefield comes to mind, but that’s only half-accurate. Physical assaults on Djenne-Djenno may be, at least temporarily, in abeyance. But ethical battles surrounding the ownership of, and right to control and dispose of, art from the past rage on in Africa, as in other parts of the world. Read more.

BAMAKO — Members of Timbuktu’s Arab community said Wednesday they have set up an armed brigade to prevent further destruction of the tombs of ancient Muslim saints by Islamists occupying northern Mali.

"Today we have a vigilance brigade so that no one touches the mausolea of Araouane and Gasser-Cheick," said Tahel Ould Sidy, leader of the unit, referring to two tombs in the greater Timbuktu region.

"We are armed and there is the required number of people," he added.

"We are not going to allow people who know nothing about Islam to come and destroy our treasures. I studied in Mauritania and Saudi Arabia, no one tells us in the Koran that we should destroy tombs."

 

Members of Ansar Dine (Defenders of Faith), an Al-Qaeda-linked armed group, have been destroying tombs.

A child holds a gun as he accompanies Islamists who have been destroying ancient sites in Timbuktu. Read more.