The insurgents set fire to the library of the Ahmed Baba Institute as they evacuated the city in the wake of an offensive by French troops. Timbuktu’s mayor said thousands of documents in the library’s collection, many dating from the 14th and 15th centuries, had been destroyed.
But Time reporter Vivenne Walt said that her sources in Mali have been telling her privately for months that local residents hid most of the library’s collection not long after the insurgents first entered the city last spring.
“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,” Walt wrote.
The library contained about 20,000 manuscripts, many donated from private collections long held by local families. They include treatises on medicine and astronomy, as well as poetry, literature and Islamic law.
Walt of Time magazine told PRI’s The World that many of the documents were hidden in mud houses in the desert.
“I had been told for months that the documents were safe,” Walt said. “Last night, most of my sources were saying that they had hauled out almost all of the documents from Ahmed Baba Institute, and had hidden them in a safe house elsewhere.”
Earlier this week, Timbuktu's mayor had said that the entire library and its contents had been destroyed, causing many scholars to lament what one called in The Times “the greatest loss of the written word in Africa since the destruction of the library of Alexandria.” Now it appears that reports of the death of the library's entire collection may have been premature.