Evan Schneider/United Nations, via European Pressphoto Agency
The minaret of a clay mosque in Timbuktu, Mali.
A few weeks ago, militant Islamists of the Ansar Dine, or “Defenders of the Faith,” destroyed the main gate of the Sidi Yahya mosque, ostensibly to challenge and invalidate these beliefs. They have targeted the legendary city’s mosques, manuscripts and mausoleums and have engaged in the deliberate and systematic destruction of Mali’s cultural heritage.
Can the international community prevent the “end times” for Timbuktu and its World Heritage sites? No concrete action has so far been taken by any government or intergovernmental organization to save this universal heritage of humanity.
Founded nearly 1,000 years ago on the southern edge of the Sahara just north of the Niger River, Timbuktu grew into a wealthy trading point for salt, ivory and gold. It also became, in the 15th and 16th centuries, a center of Islamic scholarship and the cultural, religious and intellectual hub of western and northern Africa. Ahmed Baba, a celebrated 16th century scholar, is reported to have had a personal library of more than 1,600 volumes, described as one of the city’s smaller collections.
Today, Timbuktu’s three great mosques — Sankore, Djingareyber and Sidi Yahya — recall Timbuktu’s golden age, and conjure up nostalgic images of Africa’s intellectual history and achievements in mathematics, chemistry, physics, astronomy, medicine and geography.
The protection of this city, so rich in history and legend, is the collective responsibility of all 172 states that are parties to Unesco’s 1972 World Heritage Convention, including the United States, all E.U member states, China, Russia, Japan and other Asian countries, as well as almost all African and Latin American states.