A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Timbuktu's Lost Libraries

All wars lead to some destruction of parts of the world's cultural heritage, but the deliberate burning of books and the destruction of works of art seems a particularly barbarous event. It is especially outrageous when it is done in the name of the very religion that created the books and art. Yet the Jihadis who burned the Ahmed Baba Institute in Timbuktu (having already destroyed most of the Sufi shrines in the area) have almost certainly burned far more Qur'ans than Western Islamophobes have ever dreamt of doing. When the Taliban destroyed the Buddhas of Bamiyan it was equally appalling, but at least they could claim to be destroying idols; in Timbuktu, the modern Vandals destroyed some of the most precious treasures of Islamic culture.

European Image of Mansa Musa
The golden age of Timbuktu was golden indeed, and the wealth of the 14th Century Emperor Mansa Musa was so vast that even the European map at left considered him one of the main points of interest in all of Africa.

The news is not all bad; locals managed to preserve at least some of the thousands of ancient manuscripts, though just how bad the losses are may take some time to appreciate. But the losses are certain to be profound, however much mitigated.

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