Online Program Enrolling Now - Seton Hall - United Nations Institute for Training and Research
Online Program Enrolling Now - Seton Hall - United Nations Institute for Training and Research

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Timbuktu Treasures at Risk


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The recent military coup in Mali not only severed the country in two, but also put valuable artifacts in the northern ancient city of Timbuktu at risk. The desert enclave, where Islamic civilization thrived centuries ago near the Niger River, was invaded by Tuareg rebels and Islamic extremists soon after the March 22 overthrow. Just last week, Islamic rebels linked to Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb destroyed a saint’s tomb and defaced another in the city.

Timbuktu has been a Unesco World Heritage site since 1988; the UN agency condemned the damage to the tombs, which total 333 throughout the city’s 16 cemeteries and mausoleums, all preserved through the Unesco designation. The fully destroyed tomb held the remains of a local Muslim saint, Sidi Mahmoud Ben Amar, and was reportedly torn apart and burned.

A Unesco team from Paris is traveling to Bamako, Mali’s capital, on May 18 to discuss a strategy with the UN officials there and the government to deal with the vulnerability of Timbuktu, Lazare Eloundou Assomo, chief of Unesco’s Africa unit, told PassBlue.

“The desecration affected the identity of the people,” Eloundou said of the destroyed tomb, adding that they were “upset.”

Unesco is also concerned about the fate of the city’s 200,000 medieval manuscripts, which are normally kept in private and public hands but have been hidden since the invasion. The Unesco director-general, Irina Bokova, sent an appeal in April to relevant officials in Mali, neighboring countries, Interpol and the art world to be on the lookout for the sale of the manuscripts on the black market.

The documents represent the city’s flourishing trade in buying and exchanging books — on subjects ranging from astronomy to medicine — during its heyday from the 13th to 15th centuries, when students came from Europe, the Middle East and elsewhere in Africa to study as Timbuktu also traded in gold from the south and salt from the north as well as slaves. Eloundou said that the oldest manuscript he has seen dates from the ninth century.

Mali and its neighbors are bound to a Unesco convention protecting cultural properties, and Mali itself is a party to The Hague convention for protection of cultural goods during armed conflicts. Unesco has not heard back from officials so far about manuscripts being sold.

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Timbuktu has been more of a tourist shrine than an intellectual powerhouse in recent history, but since the Tuareg rebels and Islamic extremists have seized the city, few media professionals have ventured there to report firsthand on its status, given the rash of kidnappings in the region and violence. The Unesco team, for example, will not be going to Timbuktu.

The slide show presented here by PassBlue displays photos of the ancient mud-brick mosques in Timbuktu and copies of medieval manuscripts.

We welcome your comments on this article.  What are your thoughts?

John Penney is chief of photography for Barnes&, where he is also in charge of the Web site’s graphics. Penney is a graduate of Boston University, where he received a B.F.A. in painting, and studied graphic design at the School of Visual Arts. He was a fellow at Yaddo in 1990 and exhibited his sculptures in galleries in New York and Miami. He designed the logo for PassBlue and is a contributing photographer and technology adviser to the site.

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