UNESCO Reports Damage To Timbuktu Worse Than Previously Reported

Timbuktu
Emilio Labrador

A team from UNESCO has visited Timbuktu in Mali to make its first on-the-ground assessment of the damage caused by last year’s occupation by the Islamist group Ansar Dine (Defenders of Faith).

The group took over Timbuktu in April 2012 and imposed a harsh form of Shariah law. Believing the city’s famous shrines and medieval manuscripts to be against Islam, even though they were created by Muslims, they began to destroy them. Early this year a coalition of Malian and French forces pushed Ansar Dine out of the city and into the northern fringes of the country, where they remain a threat.

Now that the situation has temporarily stabilized, UNESCO sent a team to investigate the damage. They had some grim findings. While recent reports stated that the damage wasn’t as bad as originally thought, that turns out not to be true.

Expedition leader Lazare Eloundou Assomo of UNESCO’s World Heritage Centre said, “We discovered that 14 of Timbuktu’s mausoleums, including those that are part of the UNESCO World Heritage sites, were totally destroyed, along with two others at the Djingareyber Mosque. The emblematic El Farouk monument at the entrance to the city was razed. We estimate that 4,203 manuscripts from the Ahmed Baba research center were lost.”

Thousands of other manuscripts were taken away from Timbuktu before the Islamists could get their hands on them. Most are now in the capital Bamako. While this saved them, Mr. Assomo told the BBC that they need to be returned to the controlled environment of the research center before the humid rainy season sets in and causes damage to the fragile pages.

Plane Crash Memorialized In The Deep Sahara

Google Earth

In a lonely corner the Sahara Desert, Google Earth shows what looks like a tattoo on the sun-parched sands: a dark graphic blot amid the vast remoteness of Niger’s Tenere region. The negative space in the center of the dot forms the shape of a DC-10 jet plane. Four arrows outside the circle point in each direction, like a compass.

The dark mass large enough to register on a satellite is actually an arrangement of boulders improbably hauled to the desolate area and hand-placed to create the precise image of a DC-10 – a memorial for the 170 victims of the UTA 772 plane crash on Sept. 19, 1989. A terrorist’s bomb downed the aircraft in Niger en route from the Democratic Republic of Congo to Paris, leaving no survivors.

Fifteen years later, victims’ relatives from the group Les Familles de l’Attentat du DC-10 d’UTA used some of their $170 million settlement to fund the memorial. (Last year, another commemorative site opened at Pere Lachaise Cemetery in Paris.) This photo gallery offers an up-close look at the arduous labor of love, illustrating such daunting tasks as excavating one of the wings, later incorporated into the design. Parts of the wreckage remained in the sand when the work began (a testament to the remoteness of the crash site), and the gallery includes stirring images of loose, twisted aircraft seats and other debris. Other striking photos show how the group spent two months moving stones by hand to outline a circle 200 feet in diameter and then fill it in with rocks, leaving an empty space in the shape of the aircraft with remarkable accuracy. Broken airplane windows ring the circle, one for each of the 155 passengers and 15 crew members who perished.

Considering that Lonely Planet describes the Tenere as a classic “endless, empty desert,” the photo gallery will be the closest look most of us ever get of this amazing memorial.

Did Islamists Destroy The Priceless Medieval Manuscripts Of Timbuktu?

TimbuktuTimbuktu is now safe from the ravages of the Islamists of northern Mali, thanks to a French-led offensive that has been kicking some fundamentalist derrière for the past couple of weeks.

Since April 2012, the city had been under the control of Ansar Dine (Defenders of Faith) who imposed a harsh version of Sharia law, cutting the hands off thieves, flogging men for talking to women in public, and even banning smoking and television. Now Ansar Dine has retreated into the desert.

Sadly, the liberation of the UNESCO World Heritage Site comes too late to save many of its historic treasures. As we’ve reported before, many of Timbuktu’s medieval shrines have been destroyed. Ansar Dine vowed to destroy all the city’s medieval shrines of Muslim saints, which they say are contrary to Islam. They appear to have come close to achieving that goal.

Even worse, there are now reports that the priceless collection of medieval manuscripts of Timbuktu may have been burnt by the Islamists before they retreated. These manuscripts cover everything from history to medicine and in many cases are our only records of important periods of African history. Some date back to the beginning of the 13th century.

An early report in yesterday’s Guardian quoted Timbuktu’s mayor, who had fled to the capital Bamako but had been in contact with associates in Timbuktu. His associates said that two buildings used to house the manuscripts had been torched, including the Ahmad Babu Institute, a state-of-the-art research institute finished in 2009.

A more measured report by the Globe and Mail says that a Sky TV crew had discovered the institute intact, but that some individual manuscripts were destroyed or missing. An estimated 10,000 of the hundreds of thousands of manuscripts may be gone. There was no word on what had happened to the dozens of private collections around the city.

This BBC report from the scene today says that “hundreds” of manuscripts have been burned, but shows no footage of this.

So it remains unclear what happened to Timbuktu’s priceless collection of historic writings. Some may have been destroyed, and others may have been looted by Ansar Dine to sell on the illegal antiquities market. What is clear is that one of the historic jewels of Africa has been permanently damaged thanks to a bunch of fanatics.

[Photo courtesy Library of Congress]

Islamists Renew Attack On Timbuktu’s Heritage

Timbuktu
The ancient treasures of Timbuktu have come under renewed attack by Islamists, the BBC reports.

The Islamist group Ansar Dine (Defenders of Faith) has vowed to destroy all the city’s medieval shrines of Muslim saints, which they say are contrary to Islam. The city in northern Mali has been under the control of a coalition of Tuareg and Islamist rebels since April. They declared the independent state of Azawad and soon fought among themselves, with the Islamists gaining the upper hand and imposing harsh Sharia law.

Ansar Dine came under international condemnation when it destroyed some of the shrines earlier this year. Reports indicate they destroyed four more on Sunday. It is not yet clear what Ansar Dine will do with the hundreds of thousands of early manuscripts preserved in Timbuktu.

Timbuktu was a center of trade and learning from the 12th to the 17th centuries and was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site for its many early buildings. It has long been a popular destination for adventure travelers but is far too dangerous to go to now. The BBC reports that Ansar Dine recently cut the hands off of two people they claim were criminals. It’s unclear what their crime was. Perhaps they didn’t want to see their Islamic heritage destroyed.

The BBC has an excellent slideshow of Timbuktu’s endangered treasures here.

[Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons]

12 Stunning Desert Landscapes Around The World

camels There are many beautiful landscapes to be seen all over the world. Sparkling oceans, lush flora, tall mountains, barren tundra and unique rock formations cover the Earth, giving contrast to its many destinations. One of the most interesting types of scenery to take in, however, is the desert.

While many automatically think of sandy, infertile, colorless areas of land, there are actually many vibrant and unique desert landscapes to be visited. Vast expanses of salt plains in Bolivia, curvaceous sand dunes in Jordan, enormous rock pinnacles in Australia and unworldly vegetation in Yemen make up some of the planet’s must-see deserts. For a more visual experience, check out the gallery below.

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[images via Big Stock]