Amid the crisis in Mali, there was some cause for relief last week when it became clear that historical manuscripts going back to the 13th century had been merely thrown about — and not torched, as was widely feared, by Islamist rebel fighters fleeing Timbuktu. Earlier claims by Timbuktu’s exiled mayor that many thousands of irreplaceable documents had been destroyed seemed credible, since so many centuries-old tombs and shrines had already met a similar fate at rebels’ hands. Yet once French-led soldiers regained control of the city, scholars determined that no more than 2,000 of about 300,000 documents had been destroyed.
Covering the rich intellectual history of North Africa, the manuscripts go back to a time when Timbuktu was a leading center of trade, Islamic culture, and scientific inquiry. The destruction of any of the documents is deeply disturbing on its own terms — and also because radical groups that imperil priceless historical works for ideological reasons rarely stop there. When the Taliban destroyed 1,700-year-old Buddhist statues in Afghanistan in 2001, it was a symptom of its broader depravity. Freeing Timbuktu from such a threat to its cultural heritage is another reason for the ancient city’s residents — and the world — to be thankful for the French intervention.