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Saving the heritage of Timbuktu


The Malian city of Timbuktu, in the Saharan Desert, has always been a symbol of an out-of-the-way, almost mythical, place. 

It became a byword for the far-off and exotic.

In actual fact, it is a city historically steeped in Islamic learning. Timbuktu became a permanent settlement early in the 12th Century and flourished from the trade in salt, gold, ivory and slaves.

As such, it became a meeting point between North, South and West Africa and a melting pot of black Africans, Berber, Arab and Tuareg desert nomads.

The city flourished as a center of Islamic culture and scholarship in the 13th through 16th centuries. Its numerous Islamic scholars and extensive trading network made possible an important book trade.

As many as 700,000 manuscripts were collected in Timbuktu over the course of centuries: some were written in the town itself, while others, including exclusive copies of the Qur’an for wealthy families, imported. These documents formed a detailed record of a humanistic, West African strand of Islam.

Because of its historical importance, Timbuktu was designated as World Heritage Site by the United Nations Education, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) in 1988.

Still, by the 17th Century, Timbuktu was in decline and the city’s sacred manuscripts began to fall into disrepair, especially with the French colonization of present-day Mali in the late 1890s.

But safeguarded by their patrons, many of these manuscripts survived.

They were housed in two main libraries funded by American, European and Arab donors, as well as some forty smaller collections in Timbuktu. The UNESCO-funded Ahmed Baba Institute of Higher Learning and Islamic Research housed the largest collection.

But Timbuktu’s fragile heritage came under unprecedented pressure with the arrival of Wahhabi fundamentalism from Saudi Arabia in the 1990s.

Disaster struck in April 2012, as Ansar Dine, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), and their Tuareg allies rolled into town in convoys bristling with black flags and weaponry. The insurgents soon gained the upper hand over Malian defenders.

They banned music, ordered women to cover their faces, and instituted public lashings and amputations for minor crimes.

Among the first orders of their occupation was the destruction of several tombs of venerated Timbuktu scholars who were deemed “un-Islamic” along with other “blasphemous” landmarks.

They said the mausoleums were a blasphemous form of idol worship. “Not a single mausoleum will remain in Timbuktu — Allah doesn’t like it,” one Ansar Dine leader told journalists in 2012.

One of the main libraries became a jihadi barracks where fighters tossed some 4,200 texts onto a bonfire. But this turned out to be the only significant loss, because during the Islamist occupation two librarians, Abdel Kader Haidera and Mohammed Touré, secretly evacuated about 340,000 Islamic manuscripts from the archives to the Malian capital Bamako, which remained under government control.

They bought metal and wooden trunks at a rate of between 50 and 80 a day, made more containers out of oil barrels and located safe houses around the city and beyond. They arranged for other volumes to be buried in gardens around Timbuktu. The city’s residents co-operated out of loathing for the jihadists.

In January 2013, French and Malian soldiers reclaimed Timbuktu with little resistance and reinstalled Malian governmental authorities. Since then, though, the manuscripts that were sent to Bamako have mostly remained there.

This past August, one of the Islamists, Ahmad al-Mahdi al-Faqi, was tried at the International Criminal Court in The Hague. He admitted directing the destruction of nine mausoleums and a mosque door in during the 2012 occupation.

Al-Faqi was a leader in an “Islamic Court” and a “Manners Brigade” that enforced harsh fundamentalist rules on the city and its traditionally moderate Muslim people.

The ICC has been investigating war crimes in Mali since 2013, following a request from the Malian government.

It set a precedent, being the court’s first case to focus on cultural destruction as a war crime. “It brings truth and catharsis. It is crucial for Timbuktu’s victims,” explained Fatou Bensouda, the court’s chief prosecutor.

 

Henry Srebrnik is a professor of political science at the University of Prince Edward Island.

 

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