After French and Malian troops recaptured the city, Timbuktu mayor Halley Ousmane on Monday announced that Ahmed Baba Centre for Documentation and Research, which housed between 60,000 and 100,000 manuscripts, had been set on fire.
He declared the blaze a “cultural crime”.
But Samiel Jeppie, the head of the South Africa’s Cape Town University’s project to conserve the manuscripts, on Wednesday said that reports had greatly exaggerated the damage, telling the AFP news agency that he believed more than 90 per cent had been saved.
Mali’s culture ministry says that the building itself is in fact almost untouched.
The manuscripts go back to the 15th and 16th centuries, when Timbuktu was the intellectual capital of Islam in Africa, and touch on astronomy, music, botany, law, history and politics.
Several mausoleums of Islamic saints did not escape the fundamentalists, however.
Claiming that rites at shrines are “idolatry”, they destroyed about a dozen, according to local journalists.
Malian cultural expert Ben Essayouti El-Boukhari confirmed Wednsday that most of the manuscripts have not been destroyed, although for a different reason.
Only a building recently constructed by the South Africans was pillaged, El-Boukhari said, while most of the historic manuscripts remained in an older building that they did not attack.