Today's news, tomorrow's lesson - 29 January - Historic manuscripts and artefacts destroyed in Timbuktu

Thousands of irreplaceable ancient , dating back as far as the 12th century, have reportedly been destroyed by “Islamist” militants retreating from Timbuktu.

Today's news, tomorrow's lesson - 29 January

Historic manuscripts and artefacts destroyed in Timbuktu

By William Stewart

Thousands of irreplaceable ancient manuscripts, dating back as far as the 12th century, have reportedly been destroyed by "Islamist" militants retreating from Timbuktu.

The mayor of the desert city in Mali, west Africa, said they had set fire to the Ahmed Baba Institute, which housed 20,000 valuable historic documents, as they fled last week to avoid advancing government and French troops.

"It's truly alarming that this has happened," said mayor Ousmane Halle, yesterday. "They torched all the important ancient manuscripts. The ancient books of geography and science. It is the history of Timbuktu, of its people."

The militants, who imposed a strict fundamentalist and political version of Islam known as Islamism, seized control of the city and much of northern Mali last April.

During their rule they systematically destroyed other cultural sites, including the ancient tombs of saints from another version of Islam called Sufism.

They denounced the tombs as being contrary to Islam because they encouraged Muslims to venerate saints instead of God.

In the past few days, Malian soldiers, working with the French army, have wrestled control of the city back from the fundamentalists.

Timbuktu was founded in the 5th century on the southern edge of the Sahara desert. During the 15th and 16th centuries it became a centre for spreading Islamic culture throughout Africa. The teachings of Islam were set out in several hundred thousand manuscripts held in the city, which became a World Heritage Site in 1988.

Some manuscripts had been removed from Timbuktu or hidden away for safekeeping from the Islamists.

But one expert – Michael Covitt, chairman of the Malian Manuscript Foundation – described the fire at the Ahmed Baba Institute as a "desecration to humanity".

"These manuscripts are irreplaceable," he said. "They have the wisdom of the ages and it's the most important find since the Dead Sea Scrolls."

The destruction is similar to the tactics used by another hard-line Islamic group – the Taliban – when it controlled Afghanistan in 2001.

Taliban fighters blew up a pair of giant 6th century buddhas carved into a mountain and rampaged through Afghanistan's national museum, smashing about 2,500 statues.

They targeted any art depicting the human form, because they considered it anti-Islamic.


  • Why is it important to preserve cultural artefacts?
  • Where in this country could you go to see objects from history?
  • Can you think of any examples from history of art, literature or religious symbols being deliberately destroyed?
  • What objects would you put in a time capsule representing our society?

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