JOHANNESBURG (AFP).- Most of the priceless ancient books and manuscripts housed in a centre in Timbuktu were smuggled to safety as Islamists overran the Malian city last year, curators revealed Wednesday.
"A vast majority was saved... more than 90 percent," said Shamil Jeppie, Timbuktu Manuscripts Project director at the University of Cape Town.
Jeppie said more than 20,000 manuscripts had been moved out of the South African-sponsored centre by May last year and hidden mostly in the capital Bamako and elsewhere in Timbuktu.
The texts were spirited out in trunks and placed deep in the vaults of another building.
It was feared the manuscripts had been destroyed by Islamists during their rampaging retreating from French forces, who now control the city.
The insurgent fighters had already destroyed many of the city's centuries-old shrines, the iconic legacy of Timbuktu's golden age of intellectual and spiritual development.
The fighters took the city in April, swiftly implementing a version of Islamic law which forced women to wear veils and set whipping and stoning as punishment for transgressions.
Islamist fighters had considered the texts and the shrines -- which helped earn the city UNESCO world heritage status -- to be idolatrous.
But details of an amazing effort to save the irreplaceable documents are now coming to light.
The texts, most dating from the 13th and 14th centuries, include a prized biography of the Muslim Prophet Muhammed and texts about music, astronomy, physics, traditional medicine.
"Archivists and librarians associated with the Ahmed Baba library, in fact, over the months of the occupation, worked to take the manuscripts out, to conserve them and hide them," Jeppie said.
In a statement, the project office said "a limited number of items have been damaged or stolen, the infrastructure neglected and furnishings in the library looted."
Jeppie suspects some of the delicate manuscripts could have also been damaged during movement but not at the "hands of these ignorant people."
The Ahmed Baba collection, the largest of its kind in Timbuktu, was home to around 40,000 texts.
They were housed in a state-of-the-art archive, paid for by international donors, including South Africa.
Opened in 2009, it is meant to keep the manuscripts safe and to act as a centre for research.
"There are two buildings" housing the documents, curator Ben Essayouti El-Boukhari told AFP. "There is the old one and the new one built by South Africans."
The old building is where most of the manuscripts had been kept -- including some dating back to the pre-Islamic era.
But with phone connections down, officials have been unable to get a full picture of the extent of the damage elsewhere in the city.
Officials have previously estimated there are more than 100,000 manuscripts held in several private libraries and by families in Timbuktu.
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