Timbuktu is also home to a treasure-trove of pre-colonial African history. From the 15th to the 19th century, stood at the crossroads of North African politics, trade, and learning. The Spanish Muslim scholar Leo Africanus visited the city in 1510, and has provided us with one of the earliest eye-witness descriptions of the city. At the end of the 18th century, the mystique of the city, spurred by Leo's account, drew several Europeans attempts to reach the place.
Today a relatively small city, Timbuktu is believed to be home to a collection of some 300,000 documents standing witness to that pre-colonial history. The best inventory suggests many of these are in the hands of private collectors. About 40,000 were in the hands of an institute partly-funded from South Africa within the last decade. The adobe housing the institute was occupied by Islamists when they first arrived in March of 2012.
During the present conflict, a few voices have spoken up on behalf of this patrimony of generations now long dead. UNESCO distributed a list of GPS coordinates for the locations of the document collections to the French and African military last month.
As of this morning, the Associated Press reports that the fleeing Islamists torched the adobe housing the institute. Perhaps unsurprisingly, comparisons are being drawn to the destruction of a pair of giant Buddha statues dynamited by the Taliban back in 2001. The difference, in this case, being that the iconoclasm is not crossing boundaries of religious identification, but has injected itself into a debate over the true nature of Islam. Fundamentalist Sunni parties have weighed North Africa's Sufi traditions and found them wanting.
As I follow this story, I keep on running up against the question, Why care? Of course, Malians prize the documents because they testify to a proud heritage. Islamists destroy because the existence of his documents offends their sense of truth. Western interests have not seemed interested to invest money in the preservation of the documents. Though it does offend our cultural instincts to see the human past, which we otherwise seem not very much care about, go up in smoke. Nary a university or museum from Europe or North America mentioned on the Tombouctou Manuscripts Project site; the Ford Foundation being the only exception to the rule. The story provides us with a foil, a mirror to look into and remind ourselves we are enlightened, while they are obviously not.
The past is always held hostage by the present--its pressing concerns, petty disputes, immediate obsessions. The best answer I have to the question, Why care? begins with an observation about how the preponderant weight of the present has an ability to distract from obvious, but oft-overlooked, lesson of manuscript collections. If our intention is to use them to assert our own cultural superiority, these collections are not likely to support our weight. Like the mass of humanity trod underfoot while great men play the game of nations, the textual record is a silent witness to the underlying truth that all men are dust.
Manuscript collections provide us with this very honest estimation of our fragile selves. And that, my dear reader, is precisely why they ought to be preserved.
Update: "Mali: Timbuktu Locals Saved Some of Their City’s Ancient Manuscripts from Islamists"
In interviews with TIME on Monday, the preservationists said that in a large-scale rescue operation early last year, shortly before the militants seized control of Timbuktu, thousands of manuscripts were hauled out of the Ahmad Baba center to a safe house elsewhere. Realizing that the documents might be prime targets for pillaging or vindictive attacks from Islamic extremists, staff left behind just a small portion of them, perhaps out of haste, but also to conceal the fact that the center had been deliberately emptied. “The documents which had been there are safe, they were not burned,” said Mahmoud Zouber, Mali’s presidential aide on Islamic affairs, a title he retains despite the overthrow of the former president, his boss, in a military coup a year ago; preserving Timbuktu’s manuscripts was a key project of his office. By phone from Bamako on Monday night, Zouber told TIME, “They were put in a very safe place. I can guarantee you. The manuscripts are in total security.