Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Tragedy in Mali...

Tragic news coming out of the northern Malian city of Timbuktu (see here and here) throws debates about heritage preservation in times of war or political uncertainty into new light. It appears that members of the newly victorious Ansar Dine Islamic extremist group, who recently staged a coup in Bamako and have "taken over" much of the north, decided to begin to manually destroy several ancient historic period tombs and shrines in early June.

Most of the damaged mausoleums and tombs in question are connected to the Sufi tradition and the ancient Ghanian, Malian, and Songhai Empires that collectively produced a written history at least as old as the European Renaissance, as well as numerous smaller surface sites, all now threatened with potential looting. Ironically, the ancient Sufi responsible for constructing some of these monuments are of the very same orders that helped spread Islam into Africa in the first place.

The attacks have, and continue to be, roundly condemned by local, African Union, and international politicians and governments. Some observers wonder if the recent move by UNESCO to place Timbuktu on the endangered heritage list was a catalyst for the raiding, but one Prof. Shamil Jeppie is quoted as saying "that is meaningless to Ansar Dine; what is UNESCO to them?" I agree. Even though Timbuktu has been sacked before in ancient times (kinda like Baghdad), it's the speed, pace, and targeted destruction of modern warfare, or looting driven by fervor and ignorance, that's the real concern these days.

An additional worry here (like most of the rest of the world when antiquities trafficking gets connected to warfare and other illicit trades) is that, as time goes on, historic period artifacts and manuscripts will be looted or go missing from collections and end up on the black market. Now, those tracking the trade out of Africa will have to be extra vigilant... I wouldn't be surprised if fresh loot has already reached the storerooms of online dealers. Whether or not the continued actions of Ansar Dine are in the name of their concept of a "purified" Islam, or more related to attacks against Western supremacy and imposed ideas of heritage itself, the time to act is now. Once destroyed, they can not truly be replaced....

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