Timbuktu, home to just 55,000 people, is famous for its remoteness. But it was not always so. Five centuries ago, gold from the south was exchanged for northern salt in a bustling commercial centre in what is now present-day Mali.
Scholars came to this crossroads as well, and brought with them hundreds of thousands of manuscripts. Long cherished, hidden from successive waves of invaders, guarded by the dry climate, these fragile works are a treasure trove of Islamic and other learning, some dating back as far as the 12th century. They touch on law, science and medicine, but also include ancient invoices and ornate calligraphy. The city, a Unesco world heritage site, also has venerable mosques, one built in 1325.
But now these treasures are at risk. Order has broken down, looting has begun and three-sided fighting looms among Tuareg rebels, Salafist insurgents and Mali's government, rocked last month by an impromptu military coup. Townspeople and librarians are doing what they can to protect the manuscripts, reportedly spared so far mainly through the marauders' ignorance. This wealth deserves a better fate. When peace is restored, serious protection projects will demand the world's attention.