A Daily news digest by Jasper van Santen

Will anyone save Timbuktu from Islamist tomb raiders? -guardian.co.uk

In News on July 2, 2012 at 08:58

A mosque in Timbuktu.

Will anyone save Timbuktu from Islamist tomb raiders? 

In Timbuktu in Mali, great art is being attacked right now, as if it were an enemy. It is being assaulted, smashed, assailed. The aim is total destruction. The same brand of militant Islamism that deprived the world of the Buddhas of Bamiyan is now being turned on medieval tombs that are among the wonders of Africa.

The architecture of Timbuktu, with its strange organic beauty, is extraordinary. In the middle ages, this was a land of gold-rich rulers and marketplaces that connected Africa with the Mediterranean world across the Sahara.

Unlike the colossal statues of the Buddha destroyed by the Taliban, the monuments of Timbuktu are themselves Islamic. This is a great Muslim art centre. But the tombs revere Sufi saints, and the Islamist rebels who have taken over Timbuktu regard such saint-cults as idolatrous.

This is serious. The world needs to act. It is an attack on Africa itself. How many cultural monuments have endured the centuries on this continent? The Nigerian city of Benin was crushed by a British “punitive expedition” in 1897, its palaces ravaged, their great works of art plundered to become curiosities in museums. The San hunter-gatherers who painted wondrous rock art in modern south Africa were criminalised as vagrants. One by one, the rich, plural art traditions of Africa have been wrecked. But through the ages, from Renaissance times to today, Timbuktu – the near-legendary city at the end of the Saharan camel routes – was a place of mystery and renown. It is now being trashed and no one is going to stop it.

There is no ambiguity about the attack on culture that started this weekend. The Ansar Dine group says it will “destroy every mausoleum in the city – all of them, without exception”. It also threatens to demolish the mosques themselves if they contain monuments to saints.

It is horrible to see one of the most fantastic art capitals on earth assaulted in this way. Africa’s heritage is being systematically trashed. How will the world respond?


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