By Rachel Johnson
In the midst of profound cultural destruction happening at the hands of terrorist groups, Timbuktu is rising from the ashes, a beacon of hope to resonate around the world. Three years ago at the southern edge of the Sahara Desert, Timbuktu, a city of the West African nation of Mali faced much the same brutality by the Islamic extremist group, Ansar Dine. Once occupation of the city was secure Ansar Dine rapidly desecrated the ancient mausoleums, tombs, and mosques that were deeply and historically ingrained on the landscape of Timbuktu. The radicals’ abhorrence and animosity in this case and in many others is directed toward Sufism. They believe that the veneration of Sufi saints, is idolatry, and a heretical practice that they refuse to tolerate, and they intend to wipe out Sufi history, both past and present. But this also means the loss of a rich history. The cultural heritage of Timbuktu lies in its of early history that began in the great empire of West Africa. The history of Timbuktu often begins and is intricately linked with the gold trade during the empires of Mali and Songhai. It was a diverse, cosmopolitan place, founded also on academic scholarship, a center for learning and knowledge.
The Mausoleums of Timbuktu were deeply ingrained into the landscape as places of pilgrimage, centers of scholarship, and beacons of the region’s religious belief system. During the occupation of the Islamist extremist group in Mali, fourteen of the sixteen mausoleums that were placed on The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization’s (UNESCO) World Heritage List were destroyed. Many citizens and scholars of Timbuktu feared not only for the historical monuments of the city but for the wealth of knowledge that resided within the ancient libraries. An abundance of manuscripts dating all the way back to the 16th century were housed in libraries all throughout Timbuktu. Meanwhile as the historic city crumbled around him, one brave man Dr. Haidara conspired to arrange a whole operation to smuggle the books out of Mali. He found support and financial backing from the Prince Claus Foundation in the Netherlands and the German Foreign Office. There were an estimated 285,000 manuscripts that had been smuggled and delivered to private homes in the capital. Dr. Haidara hopes that one day there will be peace in Timbuktu and the manuscripts will be returned to their home, and that through preservation, restoration, cataloguing and digitizing the manuscripts have the possibility of a longer life than anyone could have imagined. It is a legacy of knowledge that will continue to reverberate for future generations
Before the loss of the Mausoleums in 2012 UNESCO’s considered looting and desertification by the encroaching Sahara Desert to be the biggest threat to the site. In the dismay of the former glory of Timbuktu laid to dust, protection of the site by UNESCO is important just the same. In the recent reconstruction of the Mausoleums of Timbuktu, it should be seen not as an attempt to replace a memory that was lost but to rebuild a legacy and future- a site of peace and hope for preservation.
This hope rings throughout the city as recently the Director-General of UNESCO Irina Bokova paid a visit to Timbuktu for the rededication of the site to mark the reconstruction of the mausoleums. UNESCO was deeply invested in helping to restore and rebuild what was left to ruin by the acts of terror. The reconstruction was carried out by a program put in place by UNESCO and with the support of financial donors including the European Union, Switzerland, Norway, France, and the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali. With the help of the government and local community in Mali, a task force of local stone masons were put together and integrated a use of traditional building methods in their reconstruction to honor the mausoleums’ legacy. During her visit Ms. Bokova spoke of the work that was accomplished in Timbuktu, saying to the workers “Your work is a lesson in tolerance, dialogue and peace. It is an answer to all extremists whose echo can be heard well beyond the borders of Mali. Your endeavor to safeguard essential elements of your history is proof of Mali’s recovery, rallying and regained confidence.”
In current news the International Criminal Court (ICC) is pursuing the prosecution of an alleged extremist who was a collaborator in the destruction of the religious and historical monuments in Mali. The ICC bringing criminals to justice for war crimes on historic monuments is an unprecedented first, and it provides a hope that we can cling to in the massive losses that are occurring daily that justice will be served for humanity’s shared cultural heritage and values.
Tharoor, Ishaan. “Timbuktu’s Destruction: Why Islamists Are Wrecking Mali’s Cultural Heritage | TIME.com.” World Timbuktus Destruction Why Islamists Are Wrecking Malis Cultural Heritage Comments. N.p., 2 July 2012. Web. 08 Dec. 2015.