~ Posted by Rebecca Willis, January 30th 2013

Henning MankellWhen I read yesterday about the burning of Timbuktu's Ahmed Baba Institute by retreating Islamist militants, I remembered what Henning Mankell had told me when I interviewed him in 2009. The Swedish author, creator of detective Kurt Wallander, has long been fascinated by Africa: he is a tireless fund-raiser for AIDS charities, is artistic director of a theatre in Maputo, and describes himself as having "one foot in the snow and one in the sand". He chose Timbuktu as his city for Seven Wonders because it had "been an almost mythological city" in his life.

"It seems to be in the middle of nowhere," he said, "and I still remember reading about it as a child. When I finally went there it was very interesting: there are some of the world's most outstanding libraries, with very old manuscripts that survived because they had been buried in dry sand." 

We only had room to publish a bit of what he went on to say about the city's role in African history, but here it is in full, with its full force: "One of the things that is said over and over again about Africa is that there is no written history, but that is a blatant lie. If you go to Timbuktu you will see it is absolutely not true. Timbuktu takes away a lot of lying about Africa."

It would be a cultural tragedy if that written history has, as seems possible, been destroyed—only a fraction of the works in the Institute have been digitised. But there are reports that some, perhaps most, of the important works were moved away to a safe haven before the militants seized control of the city. It is likely to be a while before the world knows what it has lost and what has been saved.

Until we do, it may be worth reflecting on something else Mankell said. For him, Timbuktu is an emblem of literacy and the written word not just because of its trove of ancient works, but also because of a scene he glimpsed one night:

"I saw on the pavement under a street lamp a young girl sitting reading. She didn't have any light in her house but she was sitting there completely lost in the book."

Rebecca Willis is associate editor of Intelligent Life. Her recent posts for the Editors' Blog include Blankets don't chip easily and From molten metal to Matisse

Photograph Lina Ikse Bergman