French troops are now on the streets of Timbuktu, and the forces of Al Qaeda are nowhere to be seen. But if the latest news reports are accurate, the Al Qaeda fighters may have destroyed some of the world's greatest cultural treasures before they fled.
Timbuktu is home to an almost bewildering array of history. Hundreds of thousands of old manuscripts are thought to have been stored there, some of them dating back to the 11th century. Almost all are in classical Arabic, compiled by Arab and African scholars over centuries.
Wrapped in goatskin covers, these ancient texts, covering subjects as diverse as mathematics, medicine, astronomy, law and philosophy, have survived numerous invasions over the generations.
According to the mayor of Timbuktu, the militants may have destroyed a library of manuscripts. If true, it would be an enormous cultural crime. These manuscripts are not merely the culture of Arabs and Africans; they are the culture of humanity. A mere fraction of these texts would be a prized research asset for any university, a major exhibition for any museum.