Mali’s Timbuktu: A Cultural Treasure Under Constant Threat
Timbuktu, the ancient city located in northern Mali, is facing a new wave of violence and instability from terrorist groups operating in the Sahel region.
Timbuktu is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, famous for its distinctive mud-brick architecture, its schools that have contributed to the development of Islamic culture and science, and its priceless collection of manuscripts that date back to the 13th century.
However, for the last month, the city has been under the siege and control of Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wal-Muslimin (JNIM), a branch of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) that is active in the Sahel.
JNIM’s presence in the area increased when the UN mission, known as MINUSMA, withdrew its camps following the request from the government in Bamako.
The withdrawal of the Ber camp, located about 50 kilometers (31 miles) east of Timbuktu, and its transfer to the Malian army, sparked clashes between the army and former rebel groups that had agreed to disarm as part of the 2015 Algiers Peace Agreement.
While the army and the Coordination of Azawad Movements (CMA), composed of these former rebels, were fighting each other, JNIM took advantage of the situation and moved closer to the borders of Timbuktu.
Why Timbuktu Matters
Timbuktu is more than just a city. It is a symbol of Africa’s rich and diverse cultural heritage, a testament to its intellectual achievements and a witness to its history.
Timbuktu was founded in the 12th century by Tuareg nomads as a trading post on the edge of the Sahara Desert. It soon became a center of commerce, learning and spirituality, attracting scholars, merchants and pilgrims from across Africa and beyond.
Timbuktu’s golden age was between the 14th and 16th centuries, when it was part of the Mali Empire and later the Songhai Empire. During this period, Timbuktu flourished as a hub of Islamic civilization, producing renowned scholars such as Ahmed Baba, who wrote more than 40 books on various subjects.
Timbuktu’s legacy is preserved in its thousands of manuscripts, which cover topics such as theology, law, astronomy, medicine, poetry and history. These manuscripts are considered to be among the most valuable sources of African history and culture.
What Threatens Timbuktu
Timbuktu’s cultural heritage has been under constant threat from various sources over the centuries. It has endured invasions, droughts, floods, fires and looting.
The most recent threat comes from extremist groups that have been operating in northern Mali since 2012. These groups have imposed a strict interpretation of Islamic law on the population, banning music, sports and other forms of expression. They have also targeted Timbuktu’s monuments and manuscripts, destroying some of them and stealing others.
In 2012, JNIM’s predecessor group Ansar Dine took over Timbuktu and demolished several mausoleums of Muslim saints, claiming that they were idolatrous. They also burned hundreds of manuscripts at the Ahmed Baba Institute, a library that housed more than 40,000 manuscripts.
In 2013, a French-led military intervention drove out Ansar Dine and other extremist groups from Timbuktu and other northern cities. However, they remained active in rural areas and continued to launch attacks on security forces and civilians.
In 2016, an international criminal court convicted Ahmad al-Faqi al-Mahdi, a former member of Ansar Dine, for his role in destroying Timbuktu’s mausoleums. He was sentenced to nine years in prison.
In 2017, UNESCO restored some of Timbuktu’s mausoleums with the help of local communities. The restoration project was seen as a sign of hope and resilience for Timbuktu’s people.
How to Protect Timbuktu
Timbuktu’s cultural heritage is not only important for Mali but for humanity as a whole. It represents a shared memory and a source of inspiration for future generations.
Therefore, it is essential to protect Timbuktu from further harm and to preserve its treasures for posterity.
One way to do this is to support the efforts of local organizations and individuals who are working to safeguard Timbuktu’s manuscripts. These include librarians, archivists, scholars and families who have inherited manuscripts from their ancestors. They have been risking their lives to hide, digitize and restore manuscripts that are threatened by extremists or environmental factors.
Another way to do this is to promote dialogue and reconciliation among different communities in northern Mali. The conflict in the region has been fueled by ethnic, political and economic grievances that need to be addressed. A lasting peace in Mali is a prerequisite for the security and stability of Timbuktu and its heritage.
Finally, a way to do this is to raise awareness and appreciation of Timbuktu’s cultural heritage among the wider public. This can be done through education, media, tourism and cultural exchange. By learning more about Timbuktu’s history and achievements, people can develop a sense of respect and admiration for its people and their contribution to humanity.
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