By Jemal Oumar
With Timbuktu in the hands of armed Islamic groups allied to al-Qaeda, fears have grown about preserving the legendary UNESCO World Heritage Site.
United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) Director-General Irina Bokova on Tuesday (April 17th) appealed to Mali’s neighbours to help prevent any looting or destruction of Timbuktu’s centuries-old cultural heritage.
“Reports about the rebel takeover of Timbuktu’s Ahmed Baba Institute of Higher Islamic Studies and Research (IHERI-AB) and other cultural institutions are cause for great alarm,” France’s Libération quoted the UNESCO chief as saying.
“These centres contain ancient documents, written or copied locally, and others written in Morocco, Andalusia or some African countries, or sent to Timbuktu by pilgrims from distant Islamic lands hundreds of years ago,” Bokova added.
These documents, she said, date back to “Timbuktu’s golden period of glory between the 12th and 15th centuries” and cover subjects “from religious studies to mathematics, medicine, astronomy, and music”.
Moussa Ag Hamta, owner of a private library, told Magharebia that the concerns of the UNESCO Director-General were shared by the residents of Timbuktu who link their history to these historical centres.
“I’m proud of the documents I own because they contain many sciences,” he said. “They are also a source of livelihood for me through what European tourists pay to me. However, the takeover of the city by the extremist Islamic groups has put an end to the arrival of European tourists and made me hide these documents lest I should be forced to destroy or turn them in to them.”
“They consider these documents to be a heresy and believe that preserving them is some sort of worship, which contradicts the Islamic Sharia in their opinion,” he concluded.
Local resident Ibrahim Ag Nita described the scene: “Two days ago, some Ansar al-Din and al-Qaeda elements entered the Documents Centre at Ahmed Baba Institute and told the attendees that the Islamic Sharia only approves of Islamic religious books because they help boost doctrine, and that books of other sciences, such as math, astronomy and other sciences, are not useful to Muslims and must be removed.”
“After that, they took away rubber bags containing some documents and went to an unknown place,” he said.
“People here fear a repetition of what the Taliban did when it destroyed some Buddha statues as idols worshipped by people,” he added. “This is the same view that these extremists have of human heritage, as they say that this entire heritage is nothing but a heresy that must be disposed of.”
Meanwhile, Mauritanian intellectuals condemned attacks on the cultural heritage in northern Mali in general, and in Timbuktu in particular.
“I express my strong resentment of attacks on manuscripts in Timbuktu which in medieval history was an Islamic cultural castle for all the kingdoms in the Sahara,” Tarba Min Amar of Mauritania’s Ministry of Culture told Magharebia.
Timbuktu has been a destination for cultural tourism in recent years, as it contains between 60,000 and 100,000 manuscripts. This is in addition to mosques and shrines of the kings of Sudanese empires that inhabited the Sahara and West Africa, together with buildings dating back to several centuries.