Damage To Timbuktu’s Antiquities Not As Bad As Originally Thought

Timbuktu, Mali
Earlier this week we reported on the possible destruction of Timbuktu’s collection of medieval manuscripts. Now it turns out those initial reports were exaggerated.

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.

[Photo courtesy Gina Gleeson]

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]

Islamists Attack Hotel Bar In Tunisia

Tunisia
Tunisia has long been a favorite North African destination for its beautiful beaches, ancient ruins, and relatively tolerant atmosphere. That tolerance, however, may be changing.

The BBC reports that a group of Salafists, Muslim hardliners who have been gaining in influence in recent months, stormed into a hotel bar in Sidi Bouzid. The Salafists had warned the Horchani hotel management to stop serving alcohol and when they didn’t comply, dozens of Islamists entered the hotel bar, chased away the customers, and smashed the bottles. They also entered rooms in search of alcohol and turned their wrath on the furniture.

There were no reported injuries.

Sidi Bouzid was the birthplace of the Arab Spring. It was here in 2010 that a fruit seller set himself on fire to protest government corruption and oppression. This set off a chain of events that toppled governments in several Arab nations. While the Arab Spring has opened up the possibility of democracy, it has also encouraged Islamist groups that were generally suppressed by the old-style military dictators.

[Photo courtesy Flickr user spDuchamp. This is not a photo of the Tunisian hotel and is used for illustrative purposes only.]

People Of Mali Fight Back Against Fundamentalists Destroying Their Heritage

Mali, Timbuktu
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.

[Photo courtesy Emilio Labrador]

Somalia’s Al-Shabab bans handshakes between men and women

Somalia, somalia, handshakeAs if you didn’t have enough reasons to avoid visiting Somalia, Al-Shabab has given you another. BBC reports that the Islamist group has banned handshakes between men and women in the town of Jowhar. It’s also illegal to walk with or chat with a member of the opposite sex you’re not related to.

It’s not clear what the punishment would be for committing these “crimes”, but BBC’s correspondent in Mogadishu says a common punishment is public flogging.

Al-Shabab controls much of southern and central Somalia and rules under a harsh form of Shariah law that, in the humble opinion of this agnostic, has nothing to do with real Islam. I’ve read the Koran twice and don’t recall anything about it being a sin to shake hands or talk with someone of the opposite sex. In fact, I’ve had conversations in public with many devout Muslim women, including Somali women. Looks like these women could tell Al-Shabab a thing or two about Islam.

Luckily not all of Somalia is controlled by these idiots. In the north part of the country, Puntland remains free from their rule, although it’s full of pirates, and Somaliland is a safe place to travel. When visiting Somaliland I met a lot of refugees from the south and they all felt tremendously grateful that they didn’t have to live with Al-Shabab’s false form of Islam.

[Image courtesy user Hucz via Wikimedia Commons]