Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Timbuktu’s Treasures exposed by Conflict

Few of Earth’s ancient cities have the mystique to match Timbuktu. During its golden age in medieval times, Timbuktu was a thriving desert trading capital, as well as an intellectual and spiritual center, from which Islam spread throughout Africa. Since then, the city has fallen into serious decline, suffering from poverty and desertification. Now it faces another threat: war and conflict.
Since Tuareg-led rebels overtook Timbuktu on April 1st, Malian scholars, librarians and ordinary citizens have collaborated to hide away priceless ancient manuscripts to prevent them from being damaged or looted. Other preparations have been made to try to smuggle the items out for safekeeping, either to Mali’s capital city, Bamako, or to neighboring countries like Niger.
After stealing vehicles from the newly constructed Ahmed Baba Institute — the Malian state library that houses more than 20,000 ancient scholarly manuscripts — armed rebels ransacked the institute’s old building in another part of town, looting computers and other equipment. Thankfully, they did not enter any of the rooms and underground vaults where the priceless artifacts are stored.
Experts say that there at least 24 significant private manuscript collections, totaling anywhere from 150,000 to 750,000 artifacts, in and around Timbuktu. Dating as far back as the 13th century, the documents have been guarded from invaders by generations of Malian families. Today, the texts represent a compendium of learning on everything from law, sciences and medicine to history and politics.
Martin van Vliet, a researcher at the African Studies Center in Leiden, Netherlands, told CNN that while Timbuktu is no longer a city of vital economic or military importance, it stands out as an important prize for the rebels due to its symbolic significance. “The group that controls Timbuktu controls the symbolic capital of the entire region,” he said, “because it’s that well-known across the world. If you control that city, it will be known.”
Irina Bokova, the director general of UNESCO, has called on rebel groups to respect and protect the city’s vital heritage. “Timbuktu’s outstanding earthen architectural wonders that are the great mosques of Djingareyber, Sankore and Sidi Yahia, must be safeguarded,” she said. “Along with the site’s 16 cemeteries and mausolea, they are essential to the preservation of the identity of the people of Mali and of our universal heritage.”
A new group has been created by the GHN (Global Heritage Fund) Community to monitor and raise awareness of threats to Timbuktu. All readers of Heritage on the Wire are encouraged to join and discuss solutions for this important ancient city’s long-term preservation.

For more interesting topics related to archaeology, visit archaeology excavations.

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