GREG RAY: Treasures lost forever

TIMBUCTOO was the name my Dad used, when I was a kid, for some place so impossibly far away that it might as well not exist. In fact, I assumed for a long time that it was a mythical place.

Like Woop Woop, only more so.

Later I discovered that Timbuctoo was a real place, way out the back of Africa. I found out that some people spelt it Timbuktu, and that it was once a great centre of learning.

Then I learnt that this decayed, much abused and half-known place held mysterious and wonderful libraries, assembled over centuries as civilisations fought and traded in the region around it.

It made me sad this week to read that some of the contents of these legendary libraries had been destroyed by militants, fleeing French forces who had come to drive them away.

Irreplaceable treasures, most never digitised, now never to be seen again by human eyes.

It's a depressing fact of warfare that great cultural treasures always seem to be among the casualties.

Like the museums of Baghdad, stripped and ruined in the invasion of Iraq, wiping out records of some of the civilisations whose histories lie at the very roots of our own.

Between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, we hear in scripture, legend and story, was the garden where people first opened their eyes in guilty wonder after that first forbidden taste of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge.

These days in that part of the world you'd be more likely to find land mines and depleted uranium. Bad fruit from a dangerous tree.

It sickens me to think of what has been lost at Timbuktu. Another little piece of human memory, alien to we westerners, perhaps, but a resource from which much might have been learned.

In his 1956 book, Anywhere but Here, the remarkable Australian traveller and writer Peter Pinney described his experiences of Timbuktu. He met one of the custodians of an ancient family library, Mohamed Mohmoud, who told him his old books spoke of times before the desert, when the whole region was a fruitful garden.

His books, he told Pinney, spoke of "towns where there are no towns, wadis and lakes where there is only sand, and of forests where nothing grows today except camel-thorn and stones."

"The desert was born in the hearts of evil men," Pinney was told, "and men fought for the few green places left."

"But success does not live on the point of a sword."

Pinney described how, in Mohmoud's library, "on sagging wooden shelves, old and rotten, were stacks of heavy tomes and unbound manuscripts, eaten by worms and stained, and musty-smelling, as dusty and richly mature as mellow wine-casks in some mediaeval cellar".

Peter Pinney was no shrinking violet. A World War II veteran, his books about the war prove that. He didn't shy away from arguing religion with the old man.

The nominal Christian reasoned back and forth with the devout Muslim, with the pair parting as friends when Pinney observed that faith based on books was uncertain, while that based on the truth revealed in one's own heart could not be destroyed.

"Thus is a mystic greater than a scholar," Mohmoud conceded, before adding that "books are a record of the past, and the experience and wisdom of the past should help to guide our hearts".

Timbuktu, in addition to its libraries, is also one of the spiritual centres of Sufism, the mystical branch of Islam so well celebrated in the strange, entertaining and enlightening books of author Idries Shah.

Unfortunately, the same militants accused of burning the libraries have also spent the past year or so smashing the tombs of the Sufi saints at Timbuktu, insisting they are idolatrous and have no place in their militant brand of Islam.

"Holy war" on scholars and mystics too. Evil days indeed, even in the back of beyond.

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