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.
Timbuktu in Mali is a UNESCO World Heritage Site thanks to its many shrines to Muslim saints and its collection of some 300,000 manuscripts dating as far back as the beginning of the 13th century. They’re in several languages and cover everything from the history of the Songhai Empire to medical texts. They’re the biggest collection of texts from west Africa and are immeasurably important in our understanding of the continent’s past.
Sadly, the city got captured by the Islamist group Ansar Dine (Defenders of Faith) last April as part of a war against the government. The Islamists enforced a harsh version of Sharia law and destroyed many of the shrines. It was also feared that they had destroyed all the manuscripts.
Now that Timbuktu has been liberated by French and Malian forces, it turns out the damage isn’t as bad as previously reported. Reuters reports that most of the manuscripts were hidden in private homes and secret caches. The people of Timbuktu have had to do this many times in the face of invaders, and so they got together to protect their heritage.
The two libraries that housed tens of thousands of the manuscripts were not significantly damaged. About 2,000 manuscripts are missing. Some were burned and others may have been stolen to be sold on the international antiquities market. Also, it appears that only “dozens” of the more than 300 shrines were destroyed or significantly damaged.
An Agence France-Presse report today states that some manuscripts were smuggled all the way to the capital Bamako in the south, where they were out of reach of the rebels. The furniture in one of the main libraries was looted and there’s a pile of ash on the floor from where the Islamists burnt some of the manuscripts, but the library and collection as a whole are fine.
So it looks like the ancient heritage of Timbuktu has survived another war. Hopefully soon the situation will stabilize and the famous city will once again become a destination for scholars and adventure travelers.
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.
We’ve been covering the turmoil in Mali for some time now. Three months ago, rebels in the north of the country took advantage of a coup in the capital to break away and set up the nation of Azawad. This new nation, as yet unrecognized by any other, was supposed to be a homeland for the Tuaregs, a people who complain of poor treatment from the central government.
All did not go as planned. The radical Islamist group Ansar Dine (Defenders of Faith) took over part of the area and put it under harsh Sharia law. Their area of control includes Timbuktu, where they have been destroying the medieval shrines of Muslim saints they say are contrary to Islam. There are also fears they may burn the hundreds of thousands of early manuscripts in Timbuktu. Fundamentalists tend not to like reading much.
Now moderate Muslims are fighting back. Sufi Muslims, who are the majority in Mali and who honor the shrines, have created an armed band to defend them. They’re guarding the holy tombs at Araouane and Gasser-Cheick, close to Timbuktu.
This is the latest step towards conflict between the supposedly allied Ansar Dine and the other rebel groups. Ansar Dine has overstepped its bounds and insulted local religious feeling. They may soon pay the price.
With the world community doing nothing but wringing their hands and making sympathetic noises, it appears the only hope to save the ancient treasures of Mali is in the hands of the locals.