Saving Timbuktu: rebuilding history in Africa’s ancient city


Timbuktu was once one of Africa’s greatest cities, but centuries of war, colonial rule and, more recently, radical terrorism has taken a toll on its historic buildings. Now, thanks to efforts by Unesco and the town’s citizens, these important buildings are being restored to their former glory.

timbuktuARTICLE Djinguereber Mosque, built in 1327 in Timbuktu, Mali, is a famous learning centre and library. It was partially destroyed by the Ansar Dine extremist group in 2012.

(Image: Wikipedia)

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CD Anderson


“For some… Timbuktu might seem like the end of the world, but that is not true… I can tell you that we are right at the heart of the world.”

Malian musician Ali Farka Touré


A brief history of Timbuktu

Timbuktu, in Mali, is one of Africa’s oldest settlements. Known to nomads as a “caravan town”, it is has been a vital stopover on seasonal migratory and trade routes between the Sahara Desert and the River Niger dating back to the 12th century.

Much like an African Constantinople, Timbuktu was a bustling cosmopolitan hub for the exchange of religious and cultural ideas, specifically the trade and creation of religious texts and artefacts between Africa and the Middle East.

Several celebrated archives were established in the city, including the Djinguereber Mosque, built in 1327, and the Sidi Yahya madrassa dating back to 1440. Both buildings, containing some of the most significant religious and historical documents in the world, were influential in creating the bedrock of Islam and its Sufi mysticism offshoot in North Africa.

Both are also registered as United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (Unesco) World Heritage sites, earning Timbuktu a cultural and geographical significance that enjoys the protection of the United Nations. In theory, that is.

Sidi YahyaARTICLE The sacred doors of the Sidi Yahya madrassa in Timbuktu, Mali. The doors, which remain permanently closed, are only intended to be opened at the “End of The World”.

(Image: Wikipedia)

A town in flux

Over the centuries, the city’s standing has shifted. Once a hotbed of interchangeable political and religious ideas, it became a wilderness dogged by conflict and exploitation, particularly following a Moroccan conquest in the 16th century and over a century of French colonial rule.

Though Mali gained independence in 1960, its liberation remained tentative and volatile across conflicting tribal and religious lines. In addition to the devastating effects of desertification on the region’s agriculture, a protracted civil war with indigenous Tuareg rebels and the rise of Islamist militants have created an undeniable sense of uncertainty for Mali, with cities and towns like Timbuktu held hostage to the political ambiguities of factions contesting the area.

Ansar Dine, an extremist group allegedly associated with al-Qaeda, has terrorised Mali since early 2010. Critical of Sufi practices and grievously anti-West, Ansar Dine entered Timbuktu in 2012. It swiftly declared sharia and destroyed many of the city’s historic buildings, including the hallowed, undisturbed doors of Sidi Yahya and burning the tombs of Sufi saints at Djinguereber.

In total, 14 ancient Sufi shrines and areas of significance, some dating back to the 13th century, were deliberately reduced to rubble. While much of the madrassas’ illustrious libraries were plundered and burned, Timbuktu citizens succeeded in saving the more valuable manuscripts, hiding these in their homes and smuggling them out to safety in other, unoccupied towns.

burned books ARTICLE Men recover burnt ancient manuscripts at the Ahmed Baba Centre for Documentation and Research in Timbuktu on 29 January 2013. (Image: AFP/Eric Feferberg)

The destruction of cultural heritage

Throughout history, civilisations and the products of those civilisations – historical artefacts, architecture and religious iconography – have been threatened or destroyed through deliberate aggression.

Vandals destroyed Rome, Mongolia’s campaign into Egypt almost wiped out centuries of Pharaonic antiquities. Nazi book burning, communist destruction of art and architecture, the Taliban destroying Buddhist temples in Afghanistan and most recently, the destruction of religious and cultural landmarks by the Islamic State in Iraq, Syria and Libya – history is filled with examples of the might of one culture overpowering the sum of another, significantly buckling the course of history and erasing parts of history.

Today, the destruction of cultural heritage is a continuing concern for global heritage protectors such as Unesco and the World Heritage Commitee. The premeditated destruction of places of worship, ancient historical artefacts and cultural legacies is quickly becoming one of the most influential psychological weapons of modern warfare, striking at the heart of what it is to be a civilisation: its culture, its religion and its soul.

The loss of some of the world’s oldest and most fragile heritages are at risk more than ever.

Safeguarding world heritage

Unesco has now taken an active, hands-on approach towards protecting world heritage, with the launch of Unite4Heritage, a campaign and international support system to assist in the protection of heritage sites around the world that are threatened by extremists.

Launched in March 2015, Unesco director-general Irina Bokova called the programme a proactive way to create a global movement of education, protest and installation of pride about these important sites, in order “to protect and safeguard heritage in areas where it is threatened by extremists”.

Unite4Heritage is dedicated to building “coalitions for culture”. It works with partners such as armed forces, Interpol, the World Customs Organization, museums and national governments to prevent the destruction of precious historical objects and areas, and also to block the black market trade in cultural artefacts. IS, for example, has resorted to selling priceless historical artefacts on the black market to finance their operations.

With media partners such as Time magazine and the History Channel, Unite4Heritage aims to harness the power of global media to reconcile the world to making cultural protection a pillar of global peace-building. More importantly, Unesco is on the ground, offering assistance, financial and otherwise, to ignite efforts to rebuild the destroyed monuments with the people in the region. And the efforts are starting in Timbuktu.

Recreating the legacy of Timbuktu

In 2013, French and Malian forces drove Ansar Dine out of Timbuktu. Through support from Unesco and Unite4Heritage, the city has begun to restore its monuments.

Renovation of three shrines – honouring saints from Mali, Algeria and Djenné on the Niger delta – form the first phase of the restoration. Bokova was in the city to launch the restoration with citizens in July, calling the project “an answer to all extremists whose echo can be heard well beyond the borders of Mali”. She paid tribute to the people of Timbuktu, calling their tenacity for the task “a lesson in tolerance, dialogue and peace… [The] endeavour to safeguard essential elements of your history is proof of Mali’s recovery, rallying and regained confidence.”

Arnauld Antoine Akodjènou said those who wanted to erase the legacy of the past had failed, adding: “the reconstruction bears witness to the cultural vibrancy of Mali”. Akodjènou is the deputy special representative of the secretary-general of the UN Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali. Known as Minusma, it is tasked with the protection of the city and its residents.

restorationARTICLE Following the deliberate destruction of important Sufi monuments in Timbuktu, Unesco and the town’s citizens have set about restoring these to their former glory.

(Image: CRAterre/Thierry Joffroy)

Local craftsman and construction companies are using traditional building techniques such as stone mortaring with clay and straw, and are using old photographs and patterned wall fragments as a reference to reproduce the shrines as accurately as possible.

The rebuilding of Timbuktu is expected to take four years and cost $11-million (about R140-million today), with the support of the World Bank, the European Union, Switzerland and the US Agency for International Development.

“This reconstruction is about much more than walls,” said Malian culture minister Ramatoulaye N’Diaye Diallo. “It’s about morally rearming the Timbuktu communities and the Malian people.”

Maria Böhmer, the chairperson of the World Heritage Committee, said the reconstruction was a fine example of the successful implementation of the goals of the World Heritage Committee. “We are deeply impressed by what has been achieved regarding the safeguarding of this incomparable World Heritage property. At a time when heritage is coming under attack by armed groups, the reconstruction of the mausoleums of Timbuktu gives us grounds for optimism.”