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World Heritage Site Timbuktu Threatened

Photo by Emilio Labrado

The irreplaceable historic and architectural treasures of Mali’s great desert city, Timbuktu, are under threat of destruction by Islamist rebels occupying the city. Timbuktu, a UNESCO World Heritage site since 1988, has already suffered several attacks on its religious monuments, including the destruction of several ancient shrines of Muslim saints that the fundamentalist attackers consider to be idolatrous.

“God is unique. All of this is haram (forbidden in Islam),” Sanda Ould Boumama, spokesman for the militant Islamist group Ansar Dine (Defenders of Faith), said to the Telegraph.

On April 6, Tuareg separatist rebels declared the northern part of Mali the independent state of Azawad. Since then the MNLA (the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad), Ansar Dine and the local branch of al-Qaeda, AQIM, have been engaged in an internal power struggle for the land and the hearts of the northern Malians. The upper hand seems to belong to the hardline Islamists, who want to introduce Sharia law and aim to destroy any remnants of other religions or cultures. This includes attacks against historical monuments and buildings dedicated to religion.

Several saints are buried inside Timbuktu’s three historic mosques. The city is also home to sixteen cemeteries and mausoleums, according to the UNESCO website. One resident of Timbuktu, a former tour operator, told the Telegraph that the Islamists had also threatened to destroy the ancient mosques: “The Islamists told us that if there are saints inside the mosques, they will also destroy these mosques.” These events have prompted UNESCO to add Timbuktu to its List of World Heritage in Danger.

Both Mali’s government and the international community have appealed to the rebels to stop the destruction of these cultural treasures. The International Criminal Court (ICC) even considers these attacks as war crimes. “My message to those involved in these criminal acts is clear: stop the destruction of the religious buildings now. This is a war crime which my office has authority to fully investigate,” ICC Chief Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda told the global news agency AFP, according to the Telegraph.

Timbuktu has an almost mythical status, its very name evoking a far-away, isolated place. Located on the southern edge of the Sahara, the “City of 333 Saints” is nearly 1,000 years old. With its characteristic mud mosques rising from the sand, the city is a center for Islamic scholarship. About 700,000 ancient manuscripts are held in the town’s approximately sixty libraries. Timbuktu was a popular alternative tourist destination until a series of tourist kidnappings by a group linked to al-Qaeda scared away travelers.

In early July, UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee called for the creation of a special fund to help Mali conserve its cultural heritage. The Committee has appealed to UNESCO member states, the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, and the Islamic Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization to give to the fund.

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