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Update at 6:45 a.m. ET, Jan. 31: New reports from Timbuktu indicate that "most manuscripts were saved."
Our original post:
These photos from Timbuktu, Mali, on Tuesday confirmed what many had feared: Ancient books and texts at a famed library were torched by Islamic radicals before they fled.
The mayor of Timbuktu, Halle Ousmane Cisse, summed up his feelings in an interview with NPR's Ofeibea Quist-Arcton on Morning Edition:
"These priceless manuscripts are my identity, they're my history. They are documents about Islam, history, geography, botany, poetry. They are close to my heart, and they belong to the whole world," the mayor said.
The mayor was in Mali's capital, Bamako, but was preparing to return to his home city after the Islamist radicals fled Timbuktu in the face of advancing French troops who are assisting Mali's government.
The Islamist fighters took control of Timbuktu and much of northern Mali last spring. They imposed their rigid interpretation of Islam on the city's residents and had destroyed many cultural and historic sites, include the mausoleums of saints.
And in a final act of destruction, they set fire to the Ahmed Baba Institute, a library and research center that housed ancient texts, including Qurans and other Islamic works, dating back to the 13th century.
The institute, which was established in 1973, held some 20,000 manuscripts. Many are from the 14th to the 16th centuries and were written in Arabic. Kuwait and South Africa are among the countries that have contributed funds to the building, and a new structure was completed just four years ago.
Shamil Jeppie, who teaches at the University of Cape Town in South Africa, was familiar with the library's contents.
"The most beautifully illustrated and illuminated are the old Qurans," he told Morning Edition, adding that there were also "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. They talk of legal issues, social history of the region; you have basic mathematics texts and some fairly advanced scientific text."
Asked about the motivation for destroying the library, Jeppie said:
"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."