Rebuilding Timbuktu's Destroyed Heritage

Jihadists destroyed 14 of the 16 sacred mausoleums of the "city of 333 saints" two years ago. Local and international efforts are restoring the sites, an encouraging a more tolerant Islam.

Eight donkeys walk past the mud mosque in Timbuktu, Mali, on August 4,2007.
Charlotte Bozonnet

TIMBUKTUSand and mounds of stone are everywhere. That’s all that’s left.

In Timbuktu, in the West African nation of Mali, the “cemetery of the three saints” now lies in ruins in the suffocating heat. It’s difficult for visitors to imagine that two years ago, two mausoleums of global significance stood here.

“Look at their foundations,” says Malian architect Mamadou Koné, pointing at the rubble, where amid the ruins, a few sacred remains can still be seen. For the past year, Koné has been continuously visiting Timbuktu’s destroyed monuments. Earlier in the day, he had spoken before a delegation of European officials.

“This reconstruction is also a political issue,” says Andris Piebalgs, the European Commissioner for Development who visited the site to confirm the 500,000-euro support the European Union promised. “It is vital to show this to the population: Those who destroy do not win.”

“Pearl of the desert”

Timbuktu, the “city of 333 saints,” was occupied by Jihadists in 2012, as was the rest of northern Mali, before being driven away by the French military operation “Serval.” Their fanaticism caused serious damage to the cultural richness of a town that has been part of the world heritage list since 1988. The “pearl of the desert,” which was a crossroad for Islamic culture in the 15th and 16th centuries, is known the world over for its three great mosques, but also for its mausoleums of Muslim saints and its ancient manuscripts. It was heresy for the radical Salafists, who attacked them with pickaxes and chisels.

In the sandy streets of Timbuktu, life has now returned to normal, although it is still under surveillance. Contingents of UN peacekeepers are continuously on patrol. Shops have reopened, but traces of destruction are still everywhere.

El-Boukhari Ben Essayouti, head of the Timbuktu cultural mission and younger brother of the town’s Grand Imam, witnessed the destructive madness of Jihadists. “In May, they started tearing the glass doors off certain buildings,” the large man says. “The local residents were scared and didn’t react. So, on June 30 and July 1, they attacked the big mausoleums.”

In a few months, 14 of the 16 mausoleums classified by UNESCO were destroyed. “There was, however, a form of resistance,” Essayouti clarifies. “Every time these people entered a mosque to preach, the local residents stepped out. So, in retaliation, they destroyed construction.” Essayouti himself tried to film and photograph the sculptures at risk at Djinguereber Mosque, the largest in the city. He was briefly arrested for this.

A child playing in Timbuktu — Photo: Emilio Labrador.

4,200 ancient texts destroyed

The mausoleums were not the only buildings to suffer. In the Ahmed Baba Institute, librarian Abdoulaye Cissé points to traces of soot that are still visible at the foot of a post. It’s where the occupiers burned ancient texts that they considered impious. In total, 4,200 of them were either destroyed or disappeared during the occupation.

Luckily, the Islamists did not understand that most of the manuscripts were located a few streets away, in the former Ahmed Baba center, waiting to be transferred. Brave local inhabitants were able to extract them in trunks, by car but also by pirogue. Some 350,000 manuscripts found shelter in Bamako.

International mobilization formed quickly. By June 2012, UNESCO put Timbuktu on its list of World Heritage in Danger. Fatou Bensouda, the International Criminal Court's chief prosecutor, talks about deeds that could be qualified as “war crimes.” When French President François Hollande visited the town just after it had been freed, on Feb. 2, 2013, he was with UNESCO head Irina Bokova. On Feb. 18, international experts met in Paris to discuss safeguarding Timbuktu’s heritage. Then, financial commitments were made during a May donors conference in Brussels, where 3.3 billion euros were promised for Mali.

One year later, near the Djingareyber Mosque, Timbuktians can now see the two mausoleums again, next to its outside walls, which had been pulverized by the jihadists. Inaugurated on March 14, they marked the reconstruction of Timbuktu’s cultural heritage. “It’s a delicate task,” says Mamadou Koné, who supervised the reconstruction of both sites.

A central role: the mason

In the reconstruction work, one figure plays a central role: the mason. In Timbuktu, each mausoleum belongs to a large family that has one or several masons who are in charge of taking care of it. But they also hold the technical knowledge and the skill for these complex clay constructions. “No one can touch a mausoleum or a mosque without them,” says Lazare Eloundou, Mali’s UNESCO head. “The mason is the one who rebuilds it, and also who gives it its sacred nature.”

In the courtyard of the Sankore Mosque, one of the town’s gems, Alassane Hassaye expresses his pleasure. This ageless man in a blue boubou is the head of the corporation of masons of Timbuktu. He just took part in the two first mausoleum reconstructions. A rebirth. “We were not able to work for so many months. All the ceremonies were stopped,” he explains.

As testimonies of the golden age of the town, the tombs of saints are an integral part of the locals’ lives. They come here to reflect, pay tribute, hope for a good rainy season, help to face life's difficulties. The annual plastering of the mausoleums and mosques is a good opportunity for a popular celebration. “We were deprived of them for all these months,” Alassane Hassaye repeats. This social role of the heritage partly explains the global mobilization for Timbuktu.

In Timbuktu — Photo: Emilio Labrador.

This type of destruction by fanatics is not a first: In 2001, Afghan Taliban dynamited the Bamiyan Buddhas. “But, for the first time, sites tied to the people’s everyday life were targeted,” Lazare Eloundou points out. “Attacking mausoleums meant attacking the existence of man itself.”

In addition to Timbuktu, three other Malian sites are part of the World Heritage List: Djenné, one of the most ancient cities of Sub-Saharan Africa; the Tomb of Askia on Gao, built in 1409; and the cliffs of Bandiagara, the cradle of the Dogon people. Everywhere these last few years maintaining sites has been considerably more difficult because of falling tourism revenue due to the security problems. But the country has launched local cultural missions and has serious abilities in this field. Not to mention significant international support.

In total, UNESCO estimates that restoring Timbuktu’s heritage will cost $11 million over four years. For now, $3 million has been promised. Exorbitant sums of money for a poor country that has so many other needs? “Northern countries mobilized for what they consider a world heritage,” says Lazare Eloundou, “but the town’s inhabitants as well.”

Reconstruction is considered to be a key element of the reconciliation and defense of a tolerant Islam embodied in these cultural traditions. “The plastering of the mausoleums is a moment when all the communities get together,” Eloundou explains.

In Timbuktu, the next projects are important: rebuilding all the mausoleums, creating the best conditions for the manuscripts that care currently stored in Bamako, and repairing the mosques that were weakened by a suicide bombing in November 2013. Of course, achieving these will also depend on the evolution of the security situation in northern Mali.

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Thousands of migrants in Del Rio, Texas, on the border between Mexico and the U.S.

Hannah Steinkopf-Frank, Bertrand Hauger and Anne-Sophie Goninet

👋 Сайн уу*

Welcome to Friday, where the new U.S.-UK-Australia security pact is under fire, Italy becomes the first country to make COVID-19 "green pass" mandatory for all workers, and Prince Philip's will is to be kept secret for 90 years. From Russia, we also look at the government censorship faced by brands that recently tried to promote multiculturalism and inclusiveness in their ads.

[*Sain uu - Mongolian]


• U.S. facing multiple waves of migrants, refugees: The temporary camp, located between Mexico's Ciudad Acuña and Del Rio in Texas, is housing some 10,000 people, largely from Haiti. With few resources, they are forced to wait in squalid conditions and scorching temperatures amidst a surge of migrants attempting to cross into the U.S. Meanwhile, thousands of recently evacuated Afghan refugees wait in limbo at U.S. military bases, both domestic and abroad.

• COVID update: Italy is now the first European country to require vaccination for all public and private sector workers from Oct. 15. The Netherlands will also implement a "corona pass" in the following weeks for restaurants, bars and cultural spaces. When he gives an opening speech at the United Nations General Assembly next week, unvaccinated Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro will defy New York City authorities, who are requiring jabs for all leaders and diplomats.

• U.S. and UK face global backlash over Australian deal: The U.S. is attempting to diffuse the backlash over the new security pact signed with Australia and the UK, which excludes the European Union. The move has angered France, prompting diplomats to cancel a gala to celebrate ties between the country and the U.S.

• Russian elections: Half of the 450 seats in Duma are will be determined in today's parliamentary race. Despite persistent protests led by imprisoned opposition leader Alexey Navalny, many international monitors and Western governments fear rigged voting will result in President Vladimir Putin's United Russia party maintaining its large majority.

• Somali president halts prime minister's authority: The decision by President Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed marks the latest escalation in tensions with Prime Minister Mohamed Hussein Roble concerning a murder investigation. The move comes as the Horn of Africa country has fallen into a political crisis driven by militant violence and clashes between clans.

• Astronauts return to Earth after China's longest space mission: Three astronauts spent 90 days at the Tianhe module and arrived safely in the Gobi desert in Inner Mongolia. The Shenzhou-12 mission is the first of crewed missions China has planned for 2021-2022 as it completes its first permanent space station.

• Prince Philip's will to be kept secret for 90 years: A British court has ruled that the will of Prince Philip, the late husband of Britain's Queen Elizabeth who passed away in April at 99 years old, will remain private for at least 90 years to preserve the monarch's "dignity and standing."


With a memorable front-page photo, Argentine daily La Voz reports on the open fight between the country's president Alberto Fernández and vice-president Cristina Kirchner which is paralyzing the government. Kirchner published a letter criticizing the president's administration after several ministers resigned and the government suffered a major defeat in last week's midterm primary election.



An Italian investigation uncovered a series of offers on encrypted "dark web" websites offering to sell fake EU COVID vaccine travel documents. Italy's financial police say its units have seized control of 10 channels on the messaging service Telegram linked to anonymous accounts that were offering the vaccine certificates for up to €150. "Through the internet and through these channels, you can sell things everywhere in the world," finance police officer Gianluca Berruti told Euronews.


In Russia, brands advertising diversity are under attack

Russian sushi delivery Yobidoyobi removed an advertisement with a Black man and apologized for offending the Russian nation, while a grocery chain was attacked for featuring an LGBTQ couple, reports Moscow-based daily Kommersant.

❌ "On behalf of the entire company, we want to apologize for offending the public with our photos..." reads a recent statement by Russian sushi delivery Yobidoyobi after publishing an advertisement that included a photograph of a Black man. Shortly after, the company's co-founder, Konstantin Zimen, said people on social media were accusing Yobidoyobi of promoting multiculturalism. Another recent case involved grocery store chain VkusVill, which released advertising material featuring a lesbian couple. The company soon began to receive threats and quickly apologized and removed the text and apologized.

🏳️🌈 For the real life family featured in the ad, they have taken refuge in Spain, after their emails and cell phone numbers were leaked. "We were happy to express ourselves as a family because LGBTQ people are often alone and abandoned by their families in Russia," Mila, one of the daughters in the ad, explained in a recent interview with El Pais.

🇷🇺 It is already common in Russia to talk about "spiritual bonds," a common designation for the spiritual foundations that unite modern Russian society, harkening back to the Old Empire as the last Orthodox frontier. The expression has been mocked as an internet meme and is widely used in public rhetoric. For opponents, this meme is a reason for irony and ridicule. Patriots take spiritual bonds very seriously: The government has decided to focus on strengthening these links and the mission has become more important than protecting basic human rights.Russian sushi delivery Yobidoyobi removed an advertisement with a Black man and apologized for offending the Russian nation, while a grocery chain was attacked for featuring an LGBTQ couple, reports Moscow-based daily Kommersant.

➡️


"Ask the rich countries: Where are Africa's vaccines?"

— During an online conference, Dr. Ayoade Olatunbosun-Alakija, of the African Vaccine Delivery Alliance, implored the international community to do more to inoculate people against COVID-19 in Africa and other developing regions. The World Health Organization estimates that only 3.6% of people living in Africa have been fully vaccinated. The continent is home to 17% of the world population, but only 2% of the nearly six billion shots administered so far have been given in Africa, according to the W.H.O.

✍️ Newsletter by Hannah Steinkopf-Frank, Bertrand Hauger and Anne-Sophie Goninet

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