by Rabia Gregory for MODERN MEDIEVAL on FEBRUARY 10, 2013
Last month, as French ground forces moved into Mali at the request of Mali’s interim President, horrified whispers spread across the internet: Timbuktu’s manuscripts were in peril. On January 28, the French army moved to recapture Timbuktu amidst rumors that a retreating militia, perhaps the Salafist group Ansar Deine, had torched the Ahmad Baba Library. Later reports revealed that Ansar Deine had protected the Ahmad Baba Library, that the majority of manuscripts had been kept safe by African curators and local citizens, and that rumors of fire were stoked by a Sky News reporter embedded with the French army and confirmed by Hallè Ousmane, Timbuktu’s mayor, exiled 800 km away in Bamako.
As images of scorched manuscripts on the tiled floors of the Ahmad Baba library began circulating, medievalists voiced a visceral outrage: to us, more than anyone, the destruction of books is an unfathomable act of barbarism.When fighting in Aleppo set the medieval souks aflame, threatened the Crac des Chevaliers, and endangered Palmyra and Old Damascus, and imperiled the manuscripts of Timbuktu, my friends and colleagues turned to Facebook and blogs to lament that they could never understand how anyone could so callously destroy their own cultural heritage. As if destroying manuscripts marked humans as dangerously different, or subhuman. As if our own armies had not destroyed vast collections of unique manuscript in Hamburg, Dresden, Baghdad, Mosul, Sarajevo, and elsewhere.