The ancient mausoleums, madrassas, and shrines of Timbuktu have stood for hundreds of years, some even longer. “The City of 333 Saints,” as Timbuktu — a town in the West African nation of Mali, along the southern tip of the Saharan desert — is known, is a popular destination for Muslims and scholars alike because of its spiritual and architectural magnificence, as well as its history as a center for medieval Islamic learning in Africa.
The UNESCO World Heritage sites in the city are also wantonly ravaged by an extremist group affiliated with Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), Ansar Dine. Like many of its Arab counterparts, Mali is also undergoing a violent transformation. A military coup in late March ousted President Amadou Toumani Touré because of his handling of a rebellion by the Taureg peoples in the northeast of Mali.
The Taureg are desert nomads whom have a track record of fighting the Malian government for an independent homeland and formed the National Movement for the Liberation of the Azawad (NMLA) to do so. While Ansar Dine may have originally supported the NMLA, even sought to jointly govern Azawad, it is now fighting the Taureg in an attempt to establish an Islamic state in Mali.
What is most disheartening about the rebellion’s turn is the total disregard for Mali’s rich history. Many will recall similar incidents in Afghanistan when the Taliban destroyed ancient Buddha statues that stood for nearly two millennia. As the Taliban saw the Buddha statues as contradictory to their strict interpretation of Islam, Ansar Dine and its supporters see ancient Timbuktu – and its many Sufi shrines – in the same light.
The Malian government petitioned UNESCO to help protect Timbuktu – and the Tomb of Emperor Askia Mohammad I at Gao – resulting in a World Heritage Site in Danger status less than a month ago. Not too long after, Ansar Dine barred worshippers from entering the sites to pray and continued the destruction of Mali’s cultural heritage.
The international reaction is strong in words but effectively toothless. According to CNN, “[t]he United Nations called for sanctions against Islamist fighters in northern Mali and warned it is considering a proposal by West Africa states to deploy troops in the troubled country.”
This proposal would have to be authorized by the UN Security Council before going forward. But questions as to timing, effort, and execution are circumvented by the will of Ansar Dine.
This does not bode well for the Malian government, effectively powerless against the rebels without strong international assistance, and whom have tried to invest in tourism as a source of income (currently, Mali is primarily an agricultural exporter), but to no avail. It does not bode well for the Sufi Muslims and scholars, with the tombs of their saints and prolific libraries filled with ancient texts targeted and their freedom to worship and study infringed upon.
It is also a loss for all humanity. No matter where one claims heritage, a brilliant, vibrant, and mystical place is under the heel of those without regard for the past and without regard for the future. What is to become of other World Heritage Sites after Timbuktu and Gao are beyond repair, recognition, perhaps even memory? Either the slow decay of climate change or the rapid destruction by human hands will take them from us unless governments and international organizations consider strong and effective measures before, and not after, such treasures are leveled to the ground.
If the world does not rally around the local caretakers and government protectors of such sites, we will only know them like we do an extinct wild animal – in documentaries, where we may see but never go.