Lit by a sunbeam slanting through his broken roof, a 16-year-old Islamic student chants verses from a brittle, yellowing page one of an estimated 1 million ancient texts that experts say are crumbling to dust in this once-thriving city of Islamic learning.

Twice in the past eight years, conservationists working to save the manuscripts have come to this fly-buzzed home of sand floors and outdoor toilets, hoping to buy the disintegrating pages.

But while the family earns no income and lives on handouts, it refuses to part with its sole possession of value about 40 volumes with ripped bindings and torn pages, heaped in a medical supplies box.

The student, Alhousseini Ould Alfadrou, cites the Prophet Muhammad to explain that holy writ cannot be sold for money.

“So we’re obliged to keep them,” Alfadrou says. “We’re the ones who read them. It’s written in these books: Those who read them must protect them.”

But scholars say irreplaceable Islamic texts representing a historic era of Muslim culture, including West Africa’s unique part in it, are decaying to oblivion in sweltering homes.

Tens of thousands have been rescued and put in safe storage here and abroad, but many more are scattered around Timbuktu private heirlooms handed down from parents to children over the centuries.

The Timbuktu texts “are probably among the most important unused scholarly materials in the world,” said Chris Murphy of the U.S. Library of Congress, who was co-curator of an exhibition of 23 of the manuscripts in Washington last year…


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