2 July 2012
Last updated at 17:28
The ancient shrines and mosques which have helped to make the name Timbuktu known around the world are under threat from the Islamist Ansar Dine militant group which has taken control of the fabled city in northern Mali.
In the last few days, Ansar Dine followers, whose Salafist beliefs condemn the veneration of saints, have been destroying ancient mausoleums. They have also attacked the Sidi Yahya mosque (pictured above) and smashed one of its doors which had been left sealed as it led to the tomb of saints.
Timbuktu is also known for its many libraries which hold thousands of mediaeval manuscripts. Many of these documents have been kept by several families for generations.
The main collection in the city - with more than 40,000 items, some of them dating from as early as the 10th Century - is held at the Ahmed Baba Institute of High Studies and Islamic Research.
The Ahmed Baba centre has been digitizing hundreds of texts in order to preserve the knowledge they carry and to share it online. Many intellectuals both in Mali and abroad are now worried about the fate of manuscripts which might not be considered in line with Islamic law by the militants.
Before the arrival of electronic media, the ancient knowledge was preserved by calligraphers like Boubacar Sadeck who specializes in copying 16th Century manuscripts.
Timbuktu's strategic position on both the River Niger and the edge the Sahara Desert meant it used to lie on the crossroads of ancient trade routes and became fabulously wealthy.
But when the Europeans colonised Africa, the trade routes switched to the coast and Timbuktu lost out. It is now very poor. Even when these photos were taken - two years ago - few foreign people would venture to visit it as many were afraid of being kidnapped by Islamist militants. This has damaged one of the few sources of income that many local people had – tourism.
Many of Timbuktu's inhabitants are ethnic Tuareg, like the boy on the left. The Tuareg have long complained that they have been ignored by the government in far-off Bamako.
These are Tuareg huts near the centre of Timbuktu. Tuareg separatist rebels have worked with Ansar Dine to take control of northern Mali but the two groups later clashed and the Islamist forces gained control of the country’s three main cities in the north - Timbuktu, Gao and Kidal.
Some residents of northern Mali who originally supported independence are now worried about the road ahead, especially if the militant group imposes its strict interpretation of Islamic law. Photos: Manuel Toledo