TIMBUKTU, Mali — When al-Qaida-linked extremists fled the city of Timbuktu last month as French forces advanced, the militants torched the Ahmed Baba Institute of Higher Learning and Islamic Research, aiming to destroy a heritage of 30,000 manuscripts that date back to the 13th century.
In April, when the rebels preaching a radical version of Islam first rolled into this city, the institute was in the process of moving its collection into a new, state-of-the-art building.
The militants commandeered the new center, turning it into a dormitory for one of their units of foreign fighters, said Abdoulaye Cisse, the research center's acting director.
The Islamists came in, as they did in Afghanistan, with their own, severe interpretation of Islam, intent on rooting out what they saw as the veneration of idols instead of the pure worship of Allah. During their 10-month rule, they eviscerated much of the identity of this storied city, starting with mausoleums of their saints, which were reduced to rubble.
When they torched the new research center, the militants didn't realize only about 2,000 manuscripts had been stored there, with the bulk of the collection remaining at the old library, Cisse said.
But the militants never looked in the old library, which housed around 28,000 texts, covering the subjects of theology, astronomy, geography and more, he said. The documents later were secretly moved from the old library to the capital for safekeeping.
There was nothing Cisse and other protectors of the documents could do for the burned documents. Cisse took solace knowing that most of the texts in the new library had been digitized.
"These manuscripts are our identity," he said. "It's through these manuscripts that we have been able to reconstruct our own history, the history of Africa . People think that our history is only oral, not written. What proves that we had a written history are these documents."
Cisse estimates that what was lost in the end is less than 5 percent of the Ahmed Baba collection. Which texts were burned is not yet known.