History dating as far back as the 5th century is literally being chipped away with pick axes and shovels at the hands of an extremist rebel faction in northern Mali. Holy Muslim shrines in the ancient city of Timbuktu have become targets of the Ansar Dine. For the Islamist faction, the Sufi shrines are a form of idolatry.
But for many others in the overwhelmingly Muslim country, the mausoleums of Islamic saints are religiously significant, and regularly draw crowds of people, including Muslims preparing for the Hajj, or pilgrimage, to Mecca. These ancient buildings and monuments — some listed by the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) as World Heritage Sites — are also an integral part of world history and the collective memory of the people of Mali. Timbuktu was an intellectual and spiritual capital that played an essential part in the spread of Islam across Africa’s Sahara and Sahel in the 15th and 16th centuries.
A number of Timbuktu’s sacred tombs are now gone, reduced to piles of rubble. “Repugnant” is how Irina Bokova, director-general of UNESCO, has described the vandalism. “There is no justification for such wanton destruction. I call on all parties engaged in the conflict to stop these terrible and irreversible acts, to exercise their responsibility and protect this invaluable cultural heritage for future generations.”
Still in danger are the pyramidal structures of the Tomb of Askia, as well as other religious and cultural artifacts, including 1,000-year-old Islamic manuscripts. The manuscripts — a testimony to Africa’s written history — are specific to West Africa and unique in the Islamic world.
The United Nations has now placed Timbuktu and the Tomb of Askia on its List of World Heritage in Danger. Ansar Dine’s threats to destroy more have brought Fadima Diallo, Mali’s minister of culture, to tears. The African Union called its actions “criminal.” The new chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court, Fatou Bensouda of Gambia, has warned that her office will open an investigation into what she calls “war crimes,” under the Hague Convention of 1954 for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict.
The destruction in the fabled city follows a deepening crisis in the region since a military coup in Mali’s capital in March (see Is democracy under threat in West Africa?). Separatist Tuareg rebels took advantage of the instability to proclaim northern Mali an independent state. The Ansar Dine (“Protector of the Faith”) then in turn ousted the Tuareg rebels and took control of Timbuktu.
The UN Security Council has condemned the group’s destruction and threatened to impose sanctions against it. The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) is seeking the council’s support for an armed intervention to regain control of northern Mali.
For hundreds of years, Timbuktu has endured every major upheaval thrown its way: foreign invasions, armed raids, an earthquake, famine. Africa and the world are hoping that it will survive the current threat.