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.

Tallinn, Estonia, to open secret tunnels crossing the medieval Old Town

Tallinn, Estonia
Tallinn, the capital of Estonia, is one of Europe’s most beautiful medieval cities, and it’s getting an increasing number of visitors. Starting next year there will be more to see as the city opens up secret tunnels from the 17th century connecting the city wall, shown above, to the rest of the Old Town.

Parts of the walkway along the medieval walls will also be opened and some of the wall and towers will be restored. By 2012, city planners want to open the route from from the medieval tower Neitsitorn along the town wall to another tower called Kiek in de Kök, where you can see cannonballs stuck in the outer walls from a battle in 1577. By late 2013, the route will open from Neitsitorn to Freedom Square, partly via old tunnels.

Being a fan of all things medieval, Tallinn is on my shortlist of places to go. This UNESCO World Heritage Site is a wonderfully preserved medieval port and has a long history. Thanks to the folks at the Medieval News blog for bringing this to my attention!

[Photo of city wall courtesy Christine Kühnel. Photo of Old Town courtesy Gunnar Bach Pedersen]

Tallinn, Estonia

Heritage sites in Cambodia and Tanzania get preservation grants

Tanzania
Two UNESCO World Heritage sites have received major funding to save them from decay, Art Daily reports.

The sites are Phnom Bakheng in Cambodia and Kilwa Kisiwani in Tanzania. Phnom Bakheng temple is part of the famous Angkor Archaeological Park, which includes Angkor Wat temple complex. Phnom Bakheng was built in the late ninth to early tenth centuries AD.

Kilwa Kisiwani in Tanzania, shown here in this Wikimedia Commons image, is less known but historically important. This trading center was founded at the same time that Phnom Bakheng was being built. The site includes a fort, a grand mosque, palaces, and lots of other buildings. This entrepôt brought together Africans, Arabs, and Europeans and created a blend of cultures that can be seen in its crumbling architecture.

Both sites are feeling the weight of time and are in desperate need of preservation. Phnom Bakheng is in special danger because of the large number of visitors it gets. The World Monuments Fund has received grants for both from U.S. Ambassadors Fund for Cultural Preservation to the tune of $450,000 for Phnom Bakheng and $700,000 for Kilwa Kisiwani. The World Monuments Fund is earmarking an additional $150,000 for Phnom Bakheng.

While a world-famous place like Angkor Archaeological Park getting funding isn’t a huge surprise, the fact that a lesser-known but equally important site such as Kilwa Kisiwani is getting preserved is good news. The majority of visitors I’ve met in Africa went there for the wildlife and culture, both of which are fascinating, yet are generally unaware of Africa’s rich and complex history. The lions are lovely and the gazelle are great, but you also need to see the pyramids of Sudan and the cave paintings of Somaliland.

Excavations at ancient city of Perge in Turkey celebrate 65 years

Turkey, Perge, Perga
Archaeological excavations at the ancient city of Perge in southern Turkey have reached their 65th year, the Hürriyet Daily News reports. This makes them the longest-running excavations in a country with a wealth of ancient sites.

Perge (aka Perga) is in Turkey’s Antalya province and was founded 3,500 years ago by the Hittites. It became a prosperous Greek colony like Ephesus and Pergamon and was for a time under Persian rule. Many of the surviving remains are from the Roman period. In the early days of Christianity, St. Paul preached there (Acts 14:25). Several interesting monuments can still be seen such as a theatre, a stadium, two city gates, and a temple to Artemis.

The UNESCO World Heritage Site is so massive that more than a half century of digging has only uncovered a quarter of it. The current project is to restore many of the columns that once lined the streets.

Perga is at one end of a challenging 300+ mile trek called the St. Paul Trail that cuts diagonally across the country.

For more information and photos, check out this Anatolian travel page.

[Photo courtesy archer10 (Dennis) via flickr]

Pyramids and monasteries among the many ancient monuments under restoration

pyramids, pyramid
Around the world, ancient monuments are crumbling. As our heritage wears away through neglect, “development”, or simply the harsh treatment of time, some countries are doing something about it.

The pyramid of Djoser, the oldest of the pyramids of Egypt, will be the object of a major restoration effort. The government recently announced that funding has been earmarked for restoration after the people previously working on the site put down their tools, saying they weren’t getting paid. The money that’s owed to the company would be paid and workers would be assured their salaries, said Mohammad Abdel-Maksoud, Egypt’s new Secretary General of the Supreme Council of Antiquities. The famous Zahi Hawass was let go during the recent revolution. Hawass was briefly replaced by Abdel-Fattah al-Banna, but al-Banna quickly resigned amid criticisms of his lack of credentials.

The Djoser pyramid at Saqqara was constructed from 2667 to 2648 BC and is a step pyramid rather than a true pyramid. It now suffers from numerous structural problems and a crumbling facade.

In Tibet, the Chinese government is investing almost $9 million to restore monasteries and homes of the 10th century Guge Kingdom. Among the attractions in the ruins are some colorful Buddhist murals, caves, palaces, and pagodas. BBC News has an interesting video showing of the site here.

It’s not all good news, though. Many treasures of the past are under threat. While Rome’s Colosseum is being restored, several structures in Pompeii collapsed last year. In Red Rock Canyon, Nevada, volunteers and experts had to clean away graffiti sprayed on Native American rock art. In England the Priddy Circles, a collection of Neolithic earthworks from 5,000 years ago, were half destroyed when someone bulldozed them.

It’s nice to see some governments working hard to maintain their monuments, but lack of funding and simple human stupidity are making their job difficult.

[Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons]