Thursday, June 7, 2012


Priceless heritage at risk from extremists
Rebel group in control of Timbuktu desecrates venerated tomb and seeks to obliterate thousands of ancient manuscripts

By Emily Sharpe. Conservation, Issue 236, June 2012
Published online: 06 June 2012

Concern for the cultural heritage of Mali is growing after militant Islamic fundamentalists desecrated a 15th-century tomb of a Muslim saint in Timbuktu in May, and threatened to destroy other tombs as well as anything else they perceive as being idolatrous or contrary to their version of Islam. The northern Malian city, a Unesco World Heritage Site, is home to several other such tombs and three historic mosques as well as many small museums. Timbuktu also has between 600,000 and one million ancient manuscripts housed in public and private collections that are vulnerable to acts of destruction from the occupying rebel forces as well as from those looking to profit from the political unrest.

Mali has been in a state of crisis since a military coup seized power in March. Two rebel factions—Ansar Dine and the People’s Movement for the Liberation of Azawad—took control of the north in April. Members of the extremist Islamist group Ansar Dine, which is trying to impose Sharia law in the region, attacked and set fire to the mausoleum of the Muslim scholar Sidi Mahmoud Ben Amar on 4 May. His grave is venerated by many local Muslims who visit to receive blessings. According to local reports, the doors, windows and gates to the tomb were broken before the rebels set fire to the tomb itself.

The director-general of Unesco, Irina Bokova, condemned the attack on the tomb, calling the desecration “a sign of change for the worse”. She also stressed that Mali’s cultural heritage “is our common property, and nothing can justify damaging it”. Lazare Eloundou Assomo, the chief of the Africa unit of Unesco’s World Heritage Centre, warns of future risks. “We know that the [rebels] have threatened to destroy other mausoleums if the community continues to visit these tombs to receive benedictions.” He adds: “The community is taking action to protect its cultural heritage because it’s too dangerous for anyone else to enter the region right now.” This appears to be the case as reports have since emerged that armed Islamists attempted to reach the pyramidal tomb of Askia—another World Heritage Site in nearby Gao—but were denied access by locals.

As we went to press, Unesco was sending a mission to the capital city of Bamako (in the south) to meet the transitional government to discuss how to prevent future attacks.

Located at the crossroads of several Trans-Saharan trade routes, Timbuktu, founded in the late fifth century, grew to become a celebrated centre of Koranic culture by the late 15th century. Academic institutions such as the University of Sankore, brought scholars from all over Africa to the city to exchange ideas. As a result, the city became a major centre of manuscript production, with texts on a variety of subjects including astronomy, agriculture and religion as well as biographies and diplomatic correspondence.

It is the safety of these manuscripts in both private hands as well as public collections, including the Ahmed Baba Institute of Higher Learning and Islamic Research, which has more than 25,000 texts, that scholars are particularly concerned about. “Islamists do not like some views articulated in these manuscripts by some old African thinkers who believed in moderate Islam and called for co-operation with the rest of the world, particularly the West,” says Habib Sy, a west African scholar who is working with the Ford Foundation to document Timbuktu’s manuscripts.

According to Sy, within the first week of the city’s occupation, rebels went to the Ahmed Baba Institute with the intention of making it their headquarters, but staff prevented the takeover. He also says that the curator of the Mamma Haidara Commemorative Library in Timbuktu had to flee the city for Bamako in April. “He had to leave the manuscripts behind, hiding the few that he could,” he says.

“People are nervous and are either burying the manuscripts or taking them to Bamako,” he says, adding that many of these texts are fragile and moving them puts them at risk of damage. Transferring the texts to the capital is also risky because there are many checkpoints along the way and, if discovered, the manuscripts would probably be destroyed. Efforts to co-ordinate plans to safeguard the texts are also proving difficult. “People can’t even speak on the phone as their lines are monitored. And using the internet is not possible because there is only one small internet centre, which is also being monitored by the Islamists,” Sy says.

According to Sy, drug dealers from neighbouring areas including Libya have moved in and are offering money for manuscripts. “This crisis presents a perfect opportunity for them to launder drug money,” he says. “We need to act. If [these manuscripts] are lost, they are lost to all human kind. They are invaluable,” Sy says.

“We need to put pressure on the Malian authorities who should be providing security. They’ve abandoned the people of Timbuktu.”

An online petition has been launched to save the manuscripts. For more information, visit

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