The Glory of Islamic culture is to rise again in Timbuktu, that fabled city of trade and learning. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) has launched a restoration fund and brought together the world’s foremost scholars to clean up after the devastation wrought by a fundamentalist terror organisation linked to Al Qaeda. They will begin by rehabilitating the city’s state-of-the-art Ahmed Baba Institute of Higher Learning and Islamic Research holding a trove of priceless manuscripts as well as several venerated, ancient buildings and monuments, after their sacking by the religious fundamentalist rebels.
The Ansar Dine terrorists have been compelled by a coalition of forces led by France to retreat into the wastelands of the Sahel from the population centres of North- East Mali. But the long-term prospects of the scheme still depend on the evolution of regional security as well as France’s exist strategy from its former colonial possession. Irina Bokova, the UNESCO director-general, has announced an internationally funded programme, initially priced at a modest $5m, for the restoration and rehabilitation of the institute as well as 11 totally devastated ancient mausoleums. She has also appealed to Mali’s neighbours, Interpol and the World Customs Organisation to exercise extreme vigilance in order to arrest an anticipated illegal export traffic of valuable cultural artefacts originating from the city.
Timbuktu’s architectural treasures including a total of 16 mausoleums and the distinctive major Djingareyber, Sankore and Sidi Yahi mosques are included on UNESCO’s coveted World Heritage List. The city was founded almost 1,000 years ago on the Southern border of the Sahara Desert near the River Niger. It grew rich on trading in slaves and ivory as well as salt – which was once worth its weight in gold – and was famous for its brilliant institutions of art and learning. Current scholarships in Timbuktu concern Islamic women’s issues, Sufi practises, the law of Fatwa (legal pronouncements) and the translation and digitalisation of original ancient manuscripts. There are several hundreds of thousands of them, some in very fragile condition, held locally in scholastic institutions, public libraries and private ownership.
Most of them are in Arabic and concern religious studies, astronomy, mathematics, architecture, music, statecraft, law, literature, history and medicine. They include sacred texts and poetry. An outstanding treasure in the collection is the Tarikh Al Sudan (History of the Sudan), our foremost source of primary knowledge of the Songhai Islamic Empire that ruled the region some 500-600 years ago.
This common cultural heritage of the Arab World and all humanity is dismissed by the fundamentalist Ansar Dine militants as the offensive fruit of idol worship. The religious extremists swept to power in Timbuktu in April 2012 following a coup, introduced Sharia (Islamic path) law, torched the new Ahmed Baba institute and destroyed monuments that offended their sense of propriety.
They also staged executions by stoning, forcibly recruited children into their fighting force and indulged in the mass abuse of women before being ejected from the city.
But thankfully, the vast majority of the manuscripts – including most of the 40,000 or so documents housed at the Ahmed Baba library where they were specifically targeted by the terrorists – have been saved by the people of Timbuktu. A specialist spokesman for the institution explained that the city survives by a living tradition go- ing back hundreds of years of safeguarding its literary treasure by hiding away the manuscripts in the homes of private families before the onset of trouble.
Once again the residents squirreled away the manuscripts as the terrorists were preparing to strike. And the survival of the contents of more than 10,000 documents has been ensured forever through digitalisation. But the security of the area is far from assured.
The UN Security Council has resolved to guarantee Mali’s sovereignty by creating a multinational stabilisation mission deploying 12,600 troops there by 1 July. France is to participate in its command structure and supply it with intelligence. This is intended to provide the security needed for evolving a political compromise between the divided interests of the North and the South of the country that led to last year’s coup.
France has resolved to pull its intervention force of 3,500 troops out of the county as soon as possible, most of them by the end of this year. But it has also promised, to the relief of both Mali and its neighbours, to stay on as long as necessary to guarantee its security. That will not be easy as the terrorists have been weakened but not defeated.
Indeed, many fear that the widening war against the disparate groups that comprise the Al Qaeda force of the Sahel will undermine the security of the entire region and last perhaps for decades. Such fears have been dramatically strengthened by a murderous terror attack on the In Amanas gas field operated jointly by the Algerian state- owned Oil Co. as well as British Petroleum and Statoil of Norway, staged at Tigantourine, Algeria, earlier this year ostensibly in protest against the French intervention in neighbouring Mali.
This makes the determination of the international community to assist Timbuktu’s return to normality very significant. The UNESCO director-general has pledged to do everything possible to safeguard and rebuild the city’s extraordinary cultural heritage, which she described as “a vital part of the country’s identity and history and fundamental for its future. Its restoration and reconstruction will give the people of Mali the strength and the confidence to rebuild their national unity.
“We must do everything to help the people of Mali turn a new page in the spirit of national cohesion,” she went on. “The recent escalation of wanton destruction of Mali’s heritage makes this all the more urgent… Whether in Libya, Iraq or Afghanistan, cultural heritage is a factor of resilience, a means of resuming inter-community dialogue and a fragile but necessary driver of peace building.”
UNESCO has earlier contributed to the safeguarding of Egypt’s temples, threatened after the construction of the Aswan Dam, and rebuilt the historic Old Bridge of Mostar that had been destroyed during the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina.
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