Concern Over Safety of Malian World Heritage Sites

Photo: MomLes

UNESCO, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, as part of the 1972 Convention Concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage, is dedicated to the protection of “certain places on Earth that are of outstanding universal value and…form part of the common heritage of mankind.” As such, it has recently expressed concern over the safety of the sixteen UNESCO designated World Heritage sites in Timbuktu, Mali. This part of West Africa is rich in important buildings and artifacts including more than 100 000 historical manuscripts which cover a variety of different subjects. The historical significance and the sensitivity of the conservation of these artifacts have been addressed by the Timbuktu Educational Foundation. The NGO, which is commited to protecting the manuscripts, has referred to them as “part of the intellectual heritage of West Africa.” The organization cites the manuscripts as important proof of the advanced intellectual and cultural status of the city of Timbuktu, and as important evidence of African and Islamic thought and intellectual contributions to the world.

In early May the Director General of UNESCO issued a statement appealing to all parties in Mali to respect the country’s cultural artifacts. Particular apprehension was expressed over the possibility of the illegal trade of important artifacts and manuscripts. Preventing the illicit trade of cultural artifacts has formed a central part of UNESCO’s mandate since the 1970 Convention for the Fight Against the Illicit Trafficking of Cultural Property.

Current political context

The reason for the perceived threat to Malian cultural heritage is related to the political unrest that has plagued northern Mali since January 2012.


At present, this region of Mali is under the control of Tuareg separatist movement, the National Movement for the Liberation of the Azawad (MNLA), the Al-Qaida Organisation in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and an Islamist group called Ansar Dine. Though the extent of the connections between these groups is unclear, they have been cooperatively engaged in opposition to the central Malian government.

The Tuaregs, an ethnic group who inhabit the northern part of Mali, have had an historically testy, and at times, violent relationship with the Malian central government. Since January 2012, a new Tuareg separatist movement, MNLA, supported by Tuareg fighters returning from the conflict in Libya, has been fighting for independence of the Northern territory. The group declared the north of Mali, a region called Azawad, an independent region on April 6, a move rejected by both the Malian government and the international community at large. Timbuktu is a part of this northern territory, and fell to the Tuareg fighters on April 1, 2012.

Consequently, Timbuktu, and by extension its historical sites and artifacts are now under the control of AQIM and Ansar Dine. Though separate from the MNLA, the two Islamist groups have been to some extent allied or friendly with the Tuareg separatist movement, and all fight in concert for military control of Northern Mali.

Furthermore, these events have contributed to political instability within the central Malian government. Due to discontent over the way in which the central Malian government has handled the rebellion, members of the military unlawfully deposed the President, Amadou Toumani Touré on March 22. The military has since handed control back to a civilian transitional government, but the turmoil has made resolving the rebellion in the North, as well as the status of Timbuktu and its World Heritage sites, more difficult.


On May 28 the MNLA and Ansar Dine announced that they had formed a coalition with the goal of establishing an independent state. Initially, the MNLA and Ansar Dine had different political projects – the MNLA fought for independence for the northern region, while Ansar Dine wanted to implement Sharia law in all of Mali. Slate Afrique reports that a central component of the compromise struck between the two groups includes the acceptance by Ansar Dine of the autonomous nature of the northern region. Relatedly, MNLA has agreed that Islam will serve as the region’s official religion.

Competing accounts of an attack

Concerns over Mali’s cultural heritage were heightened on May 5, 2012 when there were reports of an attack on the World Heritage site, the mausoleum of Sidi Mahmoud Ben Amar, an ancient scholar who is considered a holy saint by many of the Sufi Muslims of Timbuktu. According to local religious belief, the mosques form a rampart that guards the city from any type of misfortune. Since the alleged attack citizens have been prevented access to this important religious site.

Unfortunately, a complete and verifiable account of the events has yet to materialize. According toUNESCO, the front door of the mausoleum and its curtains were burned. International news source Agence France-Presse spoke with a local official who said, “Members of AQIM, supported by Ansar Dine, have destroyed the tomb of Saint Sidi (Mamoud Ben) Amar. They set fire to the tomb. They promised to destroy other tombs, Timbuktu is in shock. Now they want to take and control of other tombs and manuscripts.”

The only response issued by the groups purported to be behind the attack was a statement made by Sanda Oul Bomama, a spokesperson for Ansar Dine. His account differed from the claims of the local official. In a statement to Al Jazeera he said “A new member of the Ansar Dine group came to Timbuktu and went to the tomb of Sidi Mahmoud Ben Amar on Friday to tell the faithful praying there that the saints should not be adored.” The spokesman did not reveal whether, or to what extent, Ansar Dine or the AQIM supported the man’s actions.

Both the AQIM and Ansar Dine subscribe to a Salafist reading of Islamic scripture and therefore view some of the practices of the local Sufi variant of Islam to be heretical. Specifically, they believe these practices run counter to the literal interpretation of Islamic scriptures and their strict religious values. Al Jazeera reports that though the Sufi believe that shrines are part of religious custom, Salafist groups contest that they constitute the sin of idolatry.

Following the attack, the Malian government issued a statement condemning the willful damage of the mausoleum, saying, “We have learned with indignation of the desecration of tombs perpetrated by lawless individuals. The government condemns in the strongest terms this unspeakable act in the name of Islam, a religion of tolerance and respect for human dignity.” No further damage to artifacts or World Heritage sites has been reported since.

Response of UNESCO and the Malian government

Timbuktu has been an important city in the Sahel region of Africa, experiencing a golden age between 1493-1591 under the Askia dynasty. Established as a seasonal camp, it later grew to become an intellectual and trading centre for the region. Its golden age was during its time under the Askia dynasty, from 1493-1591. Through its mosques and the University of Sankore, the city was an important centre of Islamic thought and culture.

Many of the World Heritage sites are important testaments to these periods in West African history. Three major mosques, some of the oldest in West Africa, from the 14th and 15th centuries, are still standing and recall the golden age of Timbuktu. First, the Mosque of Djingareyber was built by the Sultan Kankan Moussa in 1325, with its a signature minaret that is the central landmark in the city. The Mosque of Sankore was built afterward, between 1578 and 1582. Its design of mud walls over a wooden framework are said to be what allowed it to remain standing, as it facilitated repairs after the rainy seasons. The final World Heritage mosque site in Timbuktu is the mosque of Sidi Yahia, which was built around 1400. These, as well as sixteen mausoleums each of which play a role in local religious practices, have all been designated World Heritage sites by UNESCO. Director-General ofUNESCO, Irina Bokova, stressed the importance of these monuments, stating “Timbuktu’s outstanding earthen architectural wonders that are the great mosques of Djingareyber, Sankore and Sidi Yahia, must be safeguarded. Along with the site’s sixteen cemeteries and mausolea, they are essential to the preservation of the identity of the people of Mali and of our universal heritage.”

From May 18-20, Lalla Aicha Ben Barka, UNESCO’s Assistant Director-General for Africa, met with senior Malian government officials in order to develop a strategy to safeguard the structural integrity of the World Heritage sites in Mali. It outlines responsibilities for both the Malian government and UNESCO.

On March 24, Mali agreed to finalize its accession to the 1999 Second Protocol to the Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict. This will enable Mali to request increased protection from the international community for cultural artifacts deemed important to humanity. Additionally, Mali has said that it will appeal for the sites in Timbuktu and the Tomb of Askia be added to the list of the World Heritage in Danger. Mali is also planning to draft a report on the measures of preservation of its World Heritage conventions, as well as submit a request to the international community for technical and international assistance.

UNESCO has agreed to present the World Heritage Committee, the branch of UNESCO concerned with the implementation of the World Heritage Convention of 1972, with a detailed report including measures needed for protection of the World Heritage sites in Mali. It intends to also help raise awareness of the issue of illicit trafficking of cultural artifacts in order to curtail such illegal activity. Finally, the World Heritage Committee plans to work in conjunction with other humanitarian groups in order to further its aims in Mali.

Whether these actions will be sufficient in preserving Mali’s cultural heritage remains to be seen.

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