Mali is one of the few countries in Western Africa where evidence of human occupation from the Middle (and possibly Lower) Palaeolithic to the modern day can be found (Mayor et al. 2005). The intense exploration of the Sahara has built a clearer picture of the expansion of modern humans, from around 100,000 to 50,000 BP, moving westward through the continent, crossing into countries such as Niger, Sudan, Chad and Libya. It is in the Ounjougou site complex in the Dogon Region where the longest prehistoric sequence in western Sub-Saharan Africa has been documented (Robert et al. 2003; Truman 2006). Mali has also provided some key sites regarding the spread of Neolithic people in Western Africa (Gallay 1966). At sites such as Kobadi, the adaptation of the population in changing environments has been observed (Georgeon et al. 1990; Raimbault and Dutour 1990).
The Bronze Age in Mali is a particularly interesting period as it raises the question of whether there were long-distance relationships between the sub-Saharan region and Europe. The area of Adrar des Iforas is home to a number of petroglyphs, the majority dated between the Bronze and Iron Ages. Some of the forms depicted here are similar to petroglyphs found around Italy, England and Portugal, among other countries (Dupuy 2010).
Archaeologically renowned, some of the oldest cities in western Africa are situated in this country. A series of different kingdoms (Ghana, Mali, Songhay, Mossi and Segou) have evolved throughout the past two millennia, leading to the creation of cities such as Djenné, Timbuktu or Gao. The Arab conquest of this area seems to have happened as early as the XIth century but became widespread under the Kindgom of Mali and specifically during the reign of the XIVth century ruler Kangan (or Kankan) Moussa. After coming back from Al hajj, his pilgrimage to Mecca, Moussa launched a program of construction throughout the country, having architects from Al-Andalus and Cairo building mosques, madrasas and palaces. He enlisted Abu Ishaq Es Saheli to construct the Djinguereber Mosque in 1327, which then became an important centre for the diffusion of Islam knowledge in the region. Most famously, Moussa is known for initiating the construction of the Sankore Madrasah in 1324. In 1495 the Songhai Empire, adopting Soudan-Sahelian Islamic architecture, erected a monument by Mohamed Aboubacar Sylla (known as Mohammed Askia) – the Tomb of Askia.
Another feature of Mali’s cultural heritage worth mentioning is the Hediab, a collection of thousands of manuscripts, theological and scientific treaties dating back as far as the pre-Islamic era and written in Arabic or the Peul language. These are usually kept at the Institut des Hautes Études et de Recherches Islamiques Ahmed Baba, but Malian officials say that most of these manuscripts have now been relocated to a safer area.
The previous list is not meant to be exhaustive but instead aims at highlighting some of the key heritage features of the country. Since the late 1980s, UNESCO has submitted four cultural sites to its World Heritage List:
- The Old Town of Djenné in 1988, with its 2000 traditional toguere-built houses.
- The City of Timbuktu in 1988, covering the three main mosques, Djingareyber, Sankore and Sidi Yahia, as well as 16 cemeteries and mausoleums, considered as “essential elements in a religious system as, according to popular belief; they constitute a rampart that shields the city from all misfortune. “
- The Tomb of Askia in 2004.
- The Cliff of Bandiagara, a mixed natural and cultural landscape, in 1989.
Furthermore, nine other locations of great importance have now been submitted to the World Heritage List, a move that acknowledges and protects more than 2,000 years of history as recent geopolitical developments are endangering the unique culture of the Malian Heritage.
The Political Situation and Main Players Involved in the Conflict
Earlier this week, the UNESCO World Heritage Collection (WHC) put the city of Timbuktu and the Tomb of Askia, Mali, on the list of World Heritage in Danger. The original request was conducted by the Malian government following a series of insurrections that took place in the northern part of the country and ultimately led to the establishment of an unrecognised Islamist State in the region of Azawad.
Since the times of French colonization, people in the northern part of Mali, the majority made up of Tuareg and Arabic populations, expressed their desire for an independent state as they considered themselves more oriented towards a sub-Saharan culture. The current events that have taken place since the start of 2012 represent the most recent development in a series of uprisings commencing as far back as the beginning of the 20th century. At the start of 2012, President Amadou Toumani Touré was heavily criticized for his handling of the crisis in northern Mali. Indeed, after the fall of the Libyan official army, for which many Tuaregs and members of the future National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) were fighting, the unrest in northern Mali was reignited by a series of declarations and armed actions taken by the MNLA and an Islamist movement known as Ansar Dine (or Ançar Dine) against several cities of the region. In March, President Touré was ousted by a coup led by several groups in the military. The transitory council, presided by Amadou Sagono, suspended the constitution and aimed to restructure the territorial integrity of the Malian Sate. However, in April, the MNLA unilaterally proclaimed the independence of the state of Azawad. It is not yet recognized by any other states. In May, the MNLA officially announced its merging with the Salafist group Ansar Dine to create the Conseil Transitoire de l’État Islamique d’Azawad. It is important to keep in mind that despite some allegations by the Malian government, the MNLA denies any connection with Al Qaeda and aims at the restoration of a laic republic in Azawad. On the other hand, Ansar Dine, led by Iyad Ag Ghali, aims at the application of Sharia law throughout the state of Mali, and has been suggested as a potential ally of the Al Qaida au Maghreb Islamique (AQMI) movement. These divergences, along with others, have led to the dissolution of their previous agreement. After several clashes between the two groups, Ansar Dine declared full control of the North of Mali.
Today, the conflict involves three groups: the elected government, still led by the council of transition, presided by Amadou Sagono; the Salafist group of Ansar Dine and the MNLA, currently led by the president of the Executive Committee of the State of Azawad, Mahmoud Ag Aghaly. The situation is currently unstable and no international actions have been taken so far. However, the worsening of the humanitarian situation in northern Mali, as shown by UNICEF Anthony Lake’s declaration mentioning in this area the spread of rapes and recruitment of child soldiers, calls for a rapid decision from the international community.
Damages to Cultural Heritage in Mali
Damages to the cultural heritage of Mali started before the attacks carried out against the mausoleums of Timbuktu. As early as April this year, the offices of the Hediab were ransacked several times, although no damages to the manuscripts have been reported. Reports also mentioned the damages done in late April to a mausoleum of the 16th century Sufi Sidi Mahmoud Ben Amar by Ansar Dine, including “breaking windows, [and] burning the cloth surrounding the tomb of the saint.” On June 2nd, the New York Times reported the destruction of possibly another saint shrine, although no further information was available.Concerned by these developments, UNESCO issued a decision on June 28th aiming to put Timbuktu and the Tomb of Askia on the List of World Heritage in Danger. Two days later and possibly as a reaction to this decision, the destruction of the mausoleums were reported in some newspapers. Sanda Ould Boumama, Ansar Dine’s spokesman, let the media know that the goal of his organization was to get rid of all the mausoleums in the city without any exception. The purpose of this is to install Sharia Islamic law across Mali. Let us here recall the Salafist group’s version of Islam, who believe that God is unique and who forbid the very existence of saints, and a fortiori their representation. On Saturday 30th, several press agencies received the confirmation of the destruction of three mausoleums: the Sidi Mahmoud, Sidi Moctar and Alpha Moya. Le Monde reported the destruction of seven mausoleums in total, adding Cheikh el-Kébir to the list, a site located on the grounds of Djingareyber. The Agence France-Presse notes:
“Islamist rebels in northern Mali took hoes and chisels to the tombs of ancient Muslim saints in the city of Timbuktu for a second day, ignoring international pleas to halt their campaign of destruction. A local journalist said dozens of Islamists had swarmed the cemetery of Djingareyber in the south of the ancient city of Timbuktu.”
The Independent quotes Aboubacrine Cissé, a local resident,
“This morning, the Islamists continued breaking the mausoleums. This is our patrimony, recognized as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO. They are continuing to destroy all the tombs of all the saints of Timbuktu, and our city counts 333 saints.”
It has now been a few weeks since the destruction of the mausoleums started, and an eighth building has possibly been destroyed. In addition to these irrecoverable damages, the dispersion of historical manuscripts as well as artifacts might “become the object of looting and trafficking for profit” in the turmoil. Additionally, the location of other precious cultural sites in the region now controlled by the Salafist group, whether they are on the World Heritage List, such as the Tomb of Askia in Gao, or not, should be a cause for concern for countries around the world.
What Is Currently Being Done?
Beyond the destruction carried out against cultural heritage sites, a broader control issue has arisen by the current geopolitical situation in northern Mali. West Africa called for an intervention supported by the UN Security council in order to regulate the situation in this area and take action against the armed forces controlling the North of the country. The Economic Community of West African States (ECWAS) is favouring negotiation while planning on sending 3,300 men into the country, although needing international support to legitimize this action. The UN, African Union and European Union are however requesting more details about the ECWAS’ plan of action. More recently, the UN Security Council called for sanctions against the individuals related to Al Qaeda in Northern Mali and asked the rebel groups in this area not to associate themselves with AQMI.
In terms of cultural heritage, the Malian Minister of Arts, Tourism and Culture, Diallo Fadima, is asking the UN to take concrete measures to stop the destruction of Mali’s patrimony. Fatou Bensouda, procurer for the International Criminal Court, declared on Sunday 1st July in Dakar that destruction of these mosques and madrasas was considered a “war crime” and exhorted the groups involved to stop their actions immediately. On Tuesday 3rd, in St Petersburg, UNESCO and Diallo Fadima produced an appeal to governments and “all people of goodwill” to prevent the destruction of these monuments. The World Heritage Committee is, on the other hand, asking the UNESCO President, Irina Bokova, to create a special fund “to help Mali preserve its cultural patrimony from attacks” with financial aid from UNESCO members and the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation.
CONCLUSION – Why Should We Care?
Reuters recalls how these attacks have been inline with other events throughout the Arab world for the past few years, as, for example, the destruction of the Buddhas of Bamyian in Afghanistan in 2001. However, a new line was crossed this year when attacks started being focused directly at symbols of Islam. Reuters mentions that “experts are comparing the Timbuktu tomb destructions to similar attacks against Sufi shrines by hard-line Salafists in Egypt and Libya.” If there is indeed a history of unrest between the different Islamic groups, this type of behaviour seems like a new phenomenon. As mentioned earlier in this article, Salafists are defending their own version of Islam, defining legal systems based on the Sharia, and imposing iconoclasm throughout their territories. From this perspective the Sufi Shrines of the “333 saints” of Timbuktu have to disappear to make space for a “purer Islam.”
There is here a dangerous desire to standardize and homogenize Islam throughout the world by the destruction of its unorthodox (again from these groups’ perspective) cultural components. Therefore, beyond the protection of these monuments, it is freedom of religion, of cultural expression, of consciousness that has to be defended. It is also the right of self-determination, to the free construction of one’s own identity and the safeguard of a people’s memory that is here at stake.