The United Nations expressed alarm on Monday after reports saying that rebels had pillaged and looted the Ahmad Baba Institute of Higher Islamic Studies and Research (pictured), as well as other institutions. Many of these archives preserve documents from Timbuktu's golden era between the 12th and 15th centuries.
It is estimated that thousands of rare and priceless books have been stolen.
Irina Bokova, director general of UNESCO, appealed to Mali's neighbors and art collectors to refrain from trying to sell the stolen books and urged warring factions in Mali to respect Timbuktu's rich history as a "cultural crossroads and center of learning."
"This heritage must be protected," Bokova stressed in a press release issued yesterday in Paris, calling for "concerted action," including from Mali's warring factions, neighbouring governments, Interpol, customs organizations, the art market and collectors.
"The citizens of Timbuktu have rallied to protect these ancient documents but they need our help," she added.
Timbuktu's centres contain ancient documents dating back to the city's period of glory between the 12th and 15th centuries that bear witness to the rich history of the city as a cultural crossroads and centre of learning. They cover a vast range of subjects, including religious studies, mathematics, medicine, astronomy, music, literature and poetry.
Ms. Bokova has contacted national authorities in countries bordering Mali to remind them of their obligations under the 1970 UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property. Mali is also bound by the 1954 Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict.
A World Heritage site since 1988, Timbuktu was taken over by rebels on 1 April following their swift progression in the northern part of Mali. Fighting between Government troops and Tuareg rebels that resumed in January has forced tens of thousands of people to leave their homes.
Earlier this month, Ms. Bokova had stressed that the Timbuktu site, along with its 16 cemeteries and mausolea, are "essential to the preservation of the identity of the people of Mali and of our universal heritage."
Rick Gladstone, "Mali: Ancient Books Stolen" The New York Times April 16, 2012
"Mali: Unesco Chief Appeals for Protection of Timbuktu's Documentary Heritage" All Africa April 16, 2012
Reproduced with permission from Islam Today