Jul 05, 2012 8:04 PM GMT
Timbuktu's priceless collection of ancient scientific texts is at risk of destruction by hard-line Islamists.
Ansar Dine, a Tuareg militia, occupies territory around Timbuktu, a town in northern Mali listed as a world heritage site. In recent weeks, the group has destroyed historic tombs in the town (see picture), which house the remains of Islamic Sufi saints and which Ansar Dine says are idolatrous.
"We know six or seven shrines have been attacked," Lazare Eloundou Assomo, chief of the UNESCO World Heritage Centre's Africa Unit, told New Scientist. "But there are many scientific documents at risk too, and no one can tell if they'll be safe."
UNESCO has accepted a request by the government of Mali to add Timbuktu to the list of heritage sites at risk of destruction.
Various sites in Timbuktu house a matchless collection of 300,000 ancient Islamic texts, some dating from the 13th century, which include treatises on science and mathematics. Among them are texts on the harmful effects of tobacco, on medicine as practised 300 years ago, and on astronomy.
One of UNESCO's projects is to translate and digitise the Timbuktu manuscripts, many of which are currently kept in the town's Ahmed Baba Institute. They are among the most important historical texts in Africa.