In this photo taken Tuesday, Mar. 16, 2004, crumbling ancient Islamic manuscripts belonging to 48-year old Fatama Bocar Sambala, above, are shown in her mud-walled house in Timbuktu, Mali. Islamist extremists torched a library containing historic manuscripts in Timbuktu, the mayor of the town said Monday, Jan. 28, 2013, while owners have succeeded in removing some of the manuscripts from Timbuktu to save them and others have been carefully hidden away from the Islamists. (AP Photo/Ben Curtis)

Cape Town - Most of the ancient texts kept in state and private collections in Timbuktu are “safe and sound”, according to experts.

On Sunday, when French and Malian troops retook the desert city from Islamist rebel fighters who had occupied the Unesco World Heritage Site for the past 10 months, the city’s mayor reported that fleeing rebels had set fire to a major manuscript library.

The extent of the damage was uncertain, but it was presumed that the majority of the 300 000 texts housed in the city were torched.

But Shamil Jeppie, UCT professor and director of the Tombouctou Manuscripts Project, said that everyone had jumped the gun and the situation wasn’t as dire as initially believed.

He said the Ahmed Baba Institute – a Malian state library built and funded by the South African government and South African organisations to house numerous ancient texts – had been ransacked rather than torched.

Jeppie said Halle Ousmane Cisse, the mayor of Timbuktu who fled the city when life under the Islamist’s sharia rule became too difficult, was staying in Mali’s capital of Bamako, almost 800km away, and was being fed “largely misguided” information from a second-hand source.

“At most, around 2 000 manuscripts were destroyed,” Jeppie said.

“But we will still have to find out the full extent of the damage and see if anything was stolen.”

Jeppie said that during the rebels’ occupation of Timbuktu, some people were able to freely travel in and out of the city and, as it was feared the rebels might destroy the manuscripts as they had Muslim shrines in the city, most of the texts had been hidden or moved.

A Malian source also directly involved with the conservation of the Timbuktu manuscripts said that 95 percent of the documents were “safe and sound”.

The ancient texts date back as far as the 13th century and cover a range of topics, from astronomy to poetry.

Clayson Monyela, spokesman for South Africa’s Department of International Relations and Co-operation, said the loss of manuscripts was a tragedy and that ambassadors in the area were monitoring how much damage had been done.

He said the minister, Maite Nkoana-Mashabane, was to hold a meeting today on the issue.

The construction of the library was spearheaded by then-president Thabo Mbeki back in 2006, after the discovery of priceless manuscripts kept in small, humid rooms as part of private collections. Construction of the preservation and cataloguing facility was completed by 2010.

Shabodien Roomanay, whose company Coessa Holdings put together the team to construct the library, said he was sickened by the loss of manuscripts. “Never in a million years did we think it would come down to this.” - Cape Argus