DAKAR // The majority of Timbuktu's ancient manuscripts appear to be safe and undamaged after the Saharan city's 10-month occupation by Islamist rebel fighters, experts said, rejecting some media reports of their widespread destruction.
Denying accounts that told of tens of thousands of priceless papers being burned or stolen by the fleeing rebels, they said the bulk of the Timbuktu texts had been safely hidden well before the city's liberation by French forces on Sunday.
Brittle, written in ornate calligraphy, and ranging from scholarly treatises to old commercial invoices, the Timbuktu texts represent a compendium of human knowledge on everything from law, sciences and medicine to history and politics. Some experts compare them in importance to the Dead Sea Scrolls.
When news emerged on Wednesday that they were mostly safe, from people directly involved with conservation of the texts, the world's cultural community was relieved. It had been dismayed by the prospect of a large-scale loss.
A day after French and Malian troops retook Timbuktu, a Unesco World Heritage site and ancient seat of Islamic learning, from Islamist insurgent occupiers, the city's mayor reported the rebels had set fire to a major manuscript library.
But South African and Malian experts said that while up to 2,000 manuscripts may have been lost at the ransacked South African-funded Ahmed Baba Institute, most of about 300,000 texts in and around Timbuktu were believed to be safe.
"I can say that the vast majority of the collections appear from our reports not to have been destroyed, damaged or harmed in any way," said Cape Town University's professor, Shamil Jeppie, an expert on the Saharan city's manuscripts.
A Malian scholar based in Bamako, who asked not to be named, said that 95 per cent of them were "safe and sound".
"The initial impression was tens of thousands of manuscripts had been destroyed, looted and in general disappeared for us as researchers and for humanity. The situation now is very different, so we're very relieved," Prof Jeppie said.
The two sources said that soon after Tuareg rebels swept into Timbuktu on April 1 in a revolt later hijacked by militant Islamists, curators and collectors of the manuscripts had started hiding the texts away for safety.
"They shipped them out and distributed them around," Prof Jeppie said. The Malian source said confirmed that the manuscripts had been concealed.
It would not be the first time that Timbuktu's inhabitants have had to protect their city's manuscripts from intruders.
Some texts were stashed for generations under mud homes and in desert caves by families who feared they would be stolen by Moroccan invaders, European explorers and French colonialists.
The Ahmed Baba Institute, the state library the mayor said was torched, is named after a Timbuktu-born contemporary of William Shakespeare and housed more than 20,000 scripts.
Television footage this week from Timbuktu showed a pile of ashes in one of the rooms of the institute, a partnership between South Africa and Mali that opened in 2009.
But the Tombouctou Manuscripts Project at Cape Town University's Institute for Humanities in Africa, where Prof Jeppie works, said on its website the majority of the centre's texts were still stored in a building the other side of town.
Some of the manuscripts that constitute Timbuktu's "treasure of learning" date back to the 13th century and are part of a heritage that includes the Sankore, Sidi Yahia and Djingareyber mosques - the latter built from mud bricks and wood in 1325.
Prof Jeppie said the militants who occupied Timbuktu were unlikely to have appreciated the significance of the texts.
But he added some may have carried them off to try to sell, either in Mauritania or even in Qatar, accused by some French politicians and media of supporting Mali's rebels.
Qatar has emphatically denied supporting the rebels.
The UN cultural organisation Unesco has said it would dispatch a mission to the historic city of Timbuktu as soon as possible to assess the damage done to the ancient cultural sites. "Unesco will send a mission, as soon as security permits, to undertake a complete evaluation of the damage and determine the most urgent needs, in order to finalise a plan of action... that will guide reconstruction and rehabilitation," the body's director general Irina Bokova said in a statement. "The recent escalation of wanton destruction of Mali's heritage makes this all the more urgent," she added. "Unesco will spare no effort to help rebuild the mausoleums of Timbuktu and the Tomb of Askia in Gao," she said, referring to World Heritage sites in two northern towns that have recently been recaptured by French-led forces.