The heritage of Timbuktu
UPDATE: 6 July 2012.
Associated press now says that 90% of the Sufi tombs are now destroyed. Now the Ansar Dine claims that many Islamic texts held within the city are heretical and wants them destroyed as well. Could the destruction of what was once the Oxford of West Africa become as significant to Islamic (and world) heritage as the loss of Alexandria’s library in Egypt?
There is still lots of outrage but what is actually being done? There are reports that African nations may mobilise to force the rebels out and that the International Criminal Court is considering a prosecution for war crimes. But to do that you have to capture them in the first place. And preferably before more is destroyed.
Yet again we find that irreplaceable heritage is being destroyed in a war that will damage the future of a country and its people where tourism is only just beginning. This time it is Mali and the city is Timbuktu. This city, well-known to us as a name if not a popular travel destination, has had two days of sacking of some of its ancient monuments by Islamists fighting in the north of Mali against the government. The Ansar Dine, the name of the Islamists, has pledged to continue the destruction because they claim locals are worshipping men whilst only God should be worshipped. A spokesman is quoted as saying – according to Associated Press – “We’re going to destroy everything before we apply Shariah in this city.”
The sacking seems to coincide with the announcement from UNESCO that it had, at the request of the government of Mali, placed Timbuktu and the Tomb of Askia on UNESCO’s List of World Heritage in Danger. “Reports that the Mausoleums of Sidi Mahmoud, Sidi Moctar and Alpha Moya have been destroyed is extremely distressing” the Director-General, Irina Bokova, is quoted as saying.
What a phrase! We aren’t talking about something that can be easily remedied. We are not only talking about the destruction of centuries-old heritage but also the possible removal of a whole plank of a destination’s future economy. Such destruction would be akin to us having Canterbury Cathedral raised to the ground because pilgrims pray to St Thomas a Beckett.
In Timbuktu’s golden age it was a centre of learning and a place where books were traded. There are a million manuscripts in Timbuktu according to one source. Maybe that is why the city is twinned with Hay-on-Wye! The heritage is not just Mali’s but West Africa’s.
But what can we do to help preserve what is left of the heritage of Timbuktu?
Precious little seems to be the answer other than wring our hands and moan.