By Rainer Schwenzfeier
TIMBUKTU, Mali, Jan 24 (Reuters) - South Africa and Mali opened a high-tech library in the Malian desert town of Timbuktu on Saturday, boosting efforts to preserve thousands of ancient manuscripts documenting Africa's academic past.
The launch is part of a South African plan to help Mali to protect up to 150,000 manuscripts, some of which date from the 13th century and document subjects ranging from science and the arts to social and business trends of the day.
South Africa has also been training Malian conservators to protect the texts, which some say will force the West to accept Africa has an intellectual history as old as its own. Others draw comparisons with the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls.
"Timbuktu is symbolic, not of a narrow Islamic or African civilisation, but of a civilization that was the synthesis of what knowledge was available in the world then," South Africa's President Kgalema Motlanthe said at the opening on Saturday.
"More importantly, it was part of Africa's contribution to the foundation of today's civilization," Motlanthe added, having been guided around the renovated Ahmed Baba Institute.
Documents will now be stored in rooms and cases where conditions such as humidity are controlled and pests like termites cannot eat the ancient scrolls.
Timbuktu, some 1000 km (625 miles) northwest of the capital, Bamako, was once a famously rich town where gold, ivory and slaves were traded and some 25,000 students gathered to study at its university during the 16th century.
Desert tourism aside, it is now a remote town on the edge of the Sahara desert in one of Africa's poorest nations.
Many of the manuscripts have been hidden, sometimes in chests buried in the sand, as owners feared they might be stolen by Moroccan invaders, European explorers or French colonialists.
The documents, which range from ancient copies of the Koran written in gold or ornate calligraphy to studies on music and commentaries about corrupt politicians, suffered as a result.
"These riches, accumulated over the course of time, have often been damaged. A large number faded and became unreadable," said Mali's President Amadou Toumani Toure.
Former South African President Thabo Mbeki, who launched "Operation Timbuktu" after a visit there in 2001 and returned on Saturday, has said he hopes the work will help "restore the self respect, the pride, honour and dignity of the people of Africa".
Other donors such as the United States and Norway are helping with the preservation of the manuscripts, which are stored in numerous other private and public libraries. (For full Reuters Africa coverage and to have your say on the top issues, visit: af.reuters.com) (Writing by David Lewis; Editing by Jon Boyle)