World heritage at risk in Timbuktu

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By a Newsnet reporter

The fabled city of Timbuktu was once one of the richest and most powerful cities in West Africa, situated at the southern end of the camel routes across the vast Sahara, trading in gold and ivory with the Mediterranean coasts of North Africa. 

Capital of an empire encompassing much of modern Mali, Mauritania, Senegal, Niger and Burkina Faso, Timbuktu developed a reputation as a centre of learning and scholarship, and became home to a great library and schools of Islamic study.  Famous for its three great mud-brick mosques dating back to the 14th century, the city was declared a world heritage site by UNESCO in 1988.

By a Newsnet reporter

The fabled city of Timbuktu was once one of the richest and most powerful cities in West Africa, situated at the southern end of the camel routes across the vast Sahara, trading in gold and ivory with the Mediterranean coasts of North Africa. 

Capital of an empire encompassing much of modern Mali, Mauritania, Senegal, Niger and Burkina Faso, Timbuktu developed a reputation as a centre of learning and scholarship, and became home to a great library and schools of Islamic study.  Famous for its three great mud-brick mosques dating back to the 14th century, the city was declared a world heritage site by UNESCO in 1988.

The fame and prestige of the city was so great that after the fall of the Islamic kingdom of Granada in Spain in 1492, the contents of the royal libraries were taken to Timbuktu for safekeeping, where many of the books and documents remain to this day.   Although the city became a backwater after European ships began to dominate the trade with Africa, sending many of the old camel routes into disuse and impoverishing the local trade, Timbuktu retains elements of its former glory in the form of its architectural heritage, and the city’s ancient libraries and Sufi shrines.

Now the city is controlled by Ansar Dine (‘Defenders of the Faith’ in Tamashek, the language of the Tuareg), an Islamist group which has taken control of much of northern and eastern Mali in alliance with another rebel group, the MNLA (Mouvement National pour la Libération de l’Azawad).  While Ansar Dine are believed to have links to Al Qaeda and seek the establishment of a radical Islamist state and the imposition of a strict form of Sharia law, the MNLA seeks independence for the region known as Azawad, the homeland of Mali’s large Tuareg minority.  

The Tuareg are a branch of the Berber people, who are found throughout North Africa.  Since the independence of Mali from France in 1960, the Tuareg have complained they are  discriminated against by the country’s Black African majority.  The recent violence is the fourth widescale rebellion by the Tuareg against the central authorities since Mali achieved independence.  There were also several uprisings in Tuareg regions against French rule.  The famous Beau Geste novels of the French Foreign Legion are set against the backdrop of French wars against the Tuareg.

Most of the population of Timbuktu belong to the Songhai people who are widely scattered along the Niger river, although there is a Tuareg minority in the city.

The most recent rebellion began after the breakdown of the fragile peace treaty which brought about the end of the last rebellion in 1995.  Tuareg civilians had complained that they were being victimised by members of the Malian military.  On March 22 the Malian army mounted a coup d’etat in the country’s capital Bamako, claiming that tougher measures were required to crush the latest Tuareg uprising.  The confusion and breakdown in communications caused by the coup led to the MNLA and Ansar Dine rapidly taking over large regions of Mali’s north and east, including the cities of Gao, Kidal and Timbuktu, where they unilaterally declared the independence of Azawad on 6 April.  Azawad’s independence has not been recognised by any other state.

The hardline version of Islam propagated by Ansar Dine is not widely accepted by the local population, who are overwhelmingly Muslim.  Traditionally the form of Islam found along the Niger river in Mali was heavily influenced by local indigenous religions and by Sufism.  Sufism is a form of Islam which stresses mystical religious experience and is tolerant of non-Islamic beliefs and practices.  Almost all of Timbuktu’s Christian minority fled the city before it was captured by the forces of Ansar Dine on April 1, as did many people from the Bambara ethnic group who dominate the region around the Malian capital of Bamako.     

On Friday of last week it seems that fears that Ansar Dine would threaten the city’s heritage were realised when a group of men, believed to be from Ansar Dine, burned the tomb of Sidi Mahmoud Ben Amar, a local Sufi saint.  The tomb is venerated as a shrine by Sufi Muslims. According to local reports the men claimed that the shrine and its contents were “un-Islamic” and must be destroyed.  The city’s ancient library and other heritage sites remain under threat.  

The incident sparked memories of the destruction by the Taliban of the 1400 year old Buddhist statues in Bamiyan in Afghanistan.  The two monumental statues, hewn into a cliff face in the 6th century when Buddhism and Hinduism were the majority religions locally, were blown up by the Taliban who claimed the monuments were “idols” which must be destroyed.  According to some reports, the destruction of the statues was ordered personally by Osama Bin Laden.

The destruction of the historic shrine in Timbuktu has raised fears for the safety of the city’s unique mosques, and above all for the fate of the contents of its ancient libraries which are an invaluable source of primary information on the history not just of Western Africa, but also of North Africa and Islamic Spain.  Many of the documents contain texts and images which are denounced by modern Islamists as “un-Islamic”.  Baba Haidara, a member of the Malian National Assembly, called for UNESCO and the greater international community’s help restoring the shrine in Timbuktu and freeing the city from the possible loss of its unique heritage.

Mr Haidara said:  “They attacked the grave, broke the doors and windows and ripped and burned pieces of white clothing that surrounded the tomb of the saint in front of everyone. With their attack, the militants touched the heart of Timbuktu.  They picked Friday because they know many people visit the shrines on this day.”

He added:  “They attacked the grave, broke doors, windows and wooden gates that protect it. They brought it outside and burned it, because [they said] to build a tomb is contrary to the principles of Islam.”  Mr Haidara claimed that the men said they would return to destroy other tombs.

Mali’s provisional government in Bamako, installed by the coup in April, issued a statement condemning the destruction of the shrine, saying:

“We have learned with indignation of the desecration of tombs perpetrated by lawless individuals.  The government condemns in the strongest terms this unspeakable act in the name of Islam, a religion of tolerance and respect for human dignity.”