How many of Timbuktu's priceless manuscripts were destroyed?

Islamist rebels apparently decided to take one last shot at the city of Timbuktu's cultural heritage as they fled Malian and French troops. Reuters reports

Timbuktu Mayor Ousmane Halle reported that departing Islamist gunmen had set ablaze a South African-funded library in the city containing thousands of invaluable manuscripts.

"The rebels set fire to the newly-constructed Ahmed Baba Institute built by the South Africans ... This happened four days ago," Ousmane told Reuters by telephone from Bamako. He said he had received the information from his chief of communications who had traveled south from the city a day ago.

Ousmane was not able to immediately say how much the concrete building had been damaged. He added the rebels also set fire to his office and the home of a member of parliament.

The Guardian explains the importance of these manuscripts: 

Timbuktu's famous manuscripts, believed to number in the hundreds of thousands, mainly date from the 14th to 16th centuries, when the city was an important hub for trade and Islamic knowledge. Often written in Arabic but also some local languages, they cover areas such as medicine and astronomy, as well as poetry, literature and Islamic law. Many were kept for centuries in private family libraries, passed down through the generations.

The city's huge and priceless cultural heritage, a legacy of its medieval status as an African equivalent to Oxford or Cambridge, complete with bustling university, was little known in the outside world, with even the French, Mali's colonial rulers until 1960, carrying away some manuscripts to museums but doing little to unearth the full story behind them.

As outside interest began to grow, in part when the infamously remote city became more accessible, the Ahmed Baba Institute started to collect and preserve significant parts of this cultural heritage, protecting it from damage through poor storage or being sold to collectors.

The manuscripts are the most valuable piece of the city's cultural legacy remaining since the destruction of its famed Sufi shrines last summer. The Globe and Mail recently reported that a researcher who had been working to digitize the library recently made a covert visit to the facility -- which rebels were using as sleeping quarters -- to retrieve as many of the digital images as he could on his hard drive. Private owners of manuscripts in the city have also reportedly been smuggling them out of the city or burying them underground to protect them from destruction.

EVAN SCHNEIDER/AFP/Getty Images

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