Tombs and Shrines in the City of 333 Saints Restored after Violent Destruction in Timbuktu
Efforts to restore the ancient monuments of historic Timbuktu have been successful after several years of violent strife in the region. The reconstruction of the city’s monuments is both a practical and symbolic victory, reestablishing physical heritage, and marking the end of a period of cultural destruction.
The deliberate damage to Timbuktu’s cultural heritage sites as caused by invading militias was extensive; three years ago ancient monuments and mausoleums were razed to rubble, libraries were burned, and irreplaceable historic manuscripts were destroyed.
The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) and local stonemasons have now rebuilt 14 mausoleums.
As reported by The Guardian, the joint local and international project has restored tombs and shrines of the Sufi saints, a pilgrimage center spanning hundreds of years. In Timbuktu, known as the “City of 333 Saints,” the 13 th century monuments were believed to protect the locals from danger. The mausoleums were shrines of the ancestor saints, or founding fathers, and were venerated by the people of Timbuktu.
The heart of the Djingareiber mosque in Timbuktu. (CC BY-SA 2.0)
“When Malian and UN troops took back the city and the invading militia finally fled, it emerged that much of the famous ancient library had been looted and burned, though residents managed to hide many of the precious manuscripts and books under floors or in attics, or smuggled them out of the city to safety,” reports The Guardian.
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Many of the manuscripts and artifacts survived because their owners smuggled them out of Timbuktu for the Timbuktu Libraries in Exile Project. In 2012 historical collector Dr Abdel Kader Haidara orchestrated the rescue operations by donkey and boat. And the manuscripts are indeed worth saving – subjects in the collections, spanning the 13th through 17th century, include the Koran, Sufism, philosophy, law, math, medicine, astronomy, science, poetry and much more.
The Timbuktu Manuscripts showing both mathematics and a heritage of astronomy in medieval Islam. (Public Domain)
“Every book has answers, and if you analyze them you can learn solutions,” Haidara told BBC News. “Everything that exists now, existed before now.”
"In our family there have been generations and generations of great scholars, great astronomers, and we have always looked after these documents,” Haidara added.
Restorations of the Timbuktu tombs were completed using traditional building techniques, and masons referred to old photographs and surviving structures to recreate patterns. Buildings were repaired with local stone, and mortar was a traditional mixture of clay and straw called banco.
Beautiful architecture and decorated doors of the Sankore mosque in Timbuktu. (CC BY-SA 2.0)
Irina Bokova, director general of UNESCO thanked the international and local teams, saying “Your work is a lesson in tolerance, dialogue and peace... it is an answer to all extremists whose echo can be heard well beyond the borders of Mali,” writes BBC News.
“Your endeavor to safeguard essential elements of your history is proof of Mali’s recovery, rallying and regained confidence,” Bokova continued.
UNESCO is seeking to have the al Qaeda-allied militia’s demolition of the monuments and relics investigated by the International Criminal Court, as according to the Hague Convention of 1954, destruction of cultural heritage is considered a war crime.
The city of Timbuktu is listed as an UNESCO World Heritage site, and has been described as “endangered,” a heightened risk level, so as to raise awareness of the threats that remain to ancient monuments and artifacts .
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View of Timbuktu, Heinrich Barth (1858). (Public Domain)
Founded in the fifth century as an intellectual and spiritual capital, the economic and cultural apogee of Timbuktu came about during the 15th and 16th centuries. It was an important center for the diffusion of Islamic culture, and the site of one of the world’s earliest universities, with 180 Koranic schools and 25,000 students. It was also a crossroads and an important market place where the trading of manuscripts was negotiated, and salt, gold, cattle and grain were sold.
Cost of the reconstruction work was approximately $500,000 USD (£320,000), and work projects continue at other damaged sites.
Tombs at the City of the 333 Saints were formally opened this month, marking a renewal of heritage and hope for maintained peace in Timbuktu.
Featured Image: Team of eight unbridled donkeys walk past a mud mosque laden with a load of gravel. (Emilio Labrador/CC BY 2.0)
By Liz Leafloor