Mali's Jihadists Burn their Own History

01.29.13 5:00 PM ET

What makes someone wish to burn their own cultural heritage? Mali's jihadists, retreating from advancing French and Malian troops, set fire to a modern library built to house and study the thousands of camel hide-bound books native to Timbuktu. The city's university was established before Oxford's founding, but now a radical faction of its people found fit to burn to the ground the storage site of a major period of intellectual inquiry and thought.

Fortunately, TIME Magazine is reporting many of the books may have been saved from the fires of radicalism.

In interviews with TIME on Monday, preservationists said that in a large-scale rescue operation early last year, shortly before the militants seized control of Timbuktu, thousands of manuscripts were hauled out of the Ahmed Baba Institute to a safe house elsewhere. Realizing that the documents might be prime targets for pillaging or vindictive attacks from Islamic extremists, staff left behind just a small portion of them, perhaps out of haste, but also to conceal the fact that the center had been deliberately emptied. “The documents which had been there are safe, they were not burned,” said Mahmoud Zouber, Mali’s presidential aide on Islamic affairs, a title he retains despite the overthrow of the former President, his boss, in a military coup a year ago; preserving Timbuktu’s manuscripts was a key project of his office. By phone from Bamako on Monday night, Zouber told TIME, “They were put in a very safe place. I can guarantee you. The manuscripts are in total security.”