TIMBUKTU — Sand 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.