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Vivienne Walt reports that many of the city’s revered manuscripts were actually moved before the immolation of the Ahmed Baba Centre:

By phone from Bamako on Monday night, [presidential aide Mahmoud] Zouber told TIME, “They were put in a very safe place. I can guarantee you. The manuscripts are in total security.” In a second interview from Bamako, a preservationist who did not want to be named confirmed that the center’s collection had been hidden out of reach from the militants. Neither of those interviewed wanted the location of the manuscripts named in print, for fear that remnants of the al-Qaeda occupiers might return to destroy them.

Lila Azam Zanganeh adds:

Unfortunately, very few of the manuscripts had been copied electronically.

And since many of the areas of knowledge they cover—anatomy, erectile dysfunction, women’s rights, medicine, music—are domains traditionally despised by Islamists, the Ahmed Baba Centre had several times been ransacked by armed men, though no damage had yet been done to the manuscripts themselves.

Last spring, the magazine Jeune Afrique reported that curators and private collectors were already organizing themselves to conceal the most important documents. Families spontaneously followed course on their own accounts. According to some manuscript-conservation specialists, it is believed that these libraries bring “baraka” (“good luck”), and that dismantling them attracts misfortune. Besides, many of these texts (or jottings in the margins of the manuscripts) contain family secrets, correspondences, accounts, and diaries, owing to the fact that most of Timbuktu’s inhabitants, including its skilled-craftsman class, were literate since the fifteenth century.

(Photo: Men recover burnt ancient manuscripts at the Ahmed Baba Centre for Documentation and Research in Timbuktu on January 29, 2013. French-led forces seized yesterday Mali’s fabled desert city of Timbuktu in a lightning advance north as fleeing Islamists torched a building housing priceless ancient manuscripts. Mayor Ousmane confirmed the fire at the Ahmed Baba Centre for Documentation and Research that housed between 60,000 and 100,000 manuscripts, according to Mali’s culture ministry. By Eric Feferberg/AFP/Getty Images)