TIMBUKTU - As nomadic rebels swept into Timbuktu last Sunday to plant the flag of their northern Mali homeland, the world raised fears about the fate of the legendary city, known as an ancient seat of Islamic learning which holds thousands of ancient manuscripts and architectural treasures.
"Unique manuscripts have been conserved for centuries in Timbuktu, a scholarly city of 333 saints, where practically every household is a heritage site, a library," Hamady Bocoum, head of African Institute of Basic Research (IFAN), told Agence France Presse (AFP) on Wednesday, April 4.
He warned that accelerating violence in Mali could endanger Timbuktu's rich archives and historic mosques.
"I think there are serious risks to those manuscripts."
The origins of Timbuktu - the name is believed to derive from the words Tin-Boctou (meaning the place or well of Boctou, a local woman) - date back to the 5th century.
The site on an old Saharan trading route that saw salt from the Arab north exchanged for gold and slaves from black Africa to the south, blossomed in a 16th century Golden Age as an Islamic seat of learning, home to priests, scribes and jurists.
A 15th century Malian proverb proclaims: "Salt comes from the north, gold from the south, but the word of God and the treasures of wisdom are only to be found in Timbuctoo."
The fall of Timbuktu last Sunday to nomadic Tuaregs, followed by in-fighting between the motley crew of Tuareg and Islamist rebel groups, has kept the city and its history under threat.
Their assault deepens a political crisis sparked March 21 when mutinous military junta overthrew Mali's government, saying the campaign against the recent Tuareg rebellion had been poorly run.
Timbuktu is home to nearly 100,000 ancient manuscripts, some dating to the 12th century, preserved in family homes and private libraries under the care of religious scholars.
At its height in the 1500s, the city, a Niger River port at the edge of the Sahara, was the key intersection for salt traders traveling from the north and gold traders from the south.
It was also a renowned centre of Islamic scholarship, with manuscripts written in Arabic and Fulani by scholars of the ancient Mali empire, covering a range of subjects including Islam, history, astronomy, music, botany, genealogy and anatomy.
The fall of Timbuktu has urged United Nations cultural agency UNESCO to issue a plea on Tuesday to protect the city's history.
"Timbuktu's outstanding earthen architectural wonders that are the great mosques of Djingareyber, Sankore and Sidi Yahia must be safeguarded," UNESCO director-general Irina Bokova said, AFP reported.
She called the city "essential to the preservation of the identity of the people of Mali and of our universal heritage".
UNESCO added Timbuktu to its World Heritage List in 1988 in recognition of its status as a legendary trade hub and its history stretching back to the 5th century.
Joining UNESCO calls, Bocoum, head of IFAN, warned that manuscripts could be illegally sold or destroyed by the "new arrivals", who reportedly include Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, the north African branch of Al-Qaeda.
"These manuscripts have survived through the ages thanks to a secular order, in an area of trade where all the region's peoples intersect.
With the arrival of the Islamists, that secular order is broken, that culture is in danger," he said.
The owner of one of the city's private libraries said he fears for his collection.
"I really don't know at the moment what's going to become of my manuscripts," he said.
"I'm waiting. But frankly I'm afraid."