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Jul 9, 2012

Medieval Mondays: What we stand to lose in Timbuktu

If you follow the international news, you've probably heard there's a civil war in Mali. The northern half of the country has broken away and formed the nation of Azawad.

This new nation is itself having a civil war, with part of the territory run by Tuareg tribesmen seeking a homeland, and part run by militant Islamists who want to create a hardline religious state. Many of them are mercenaries who fought for Gaddafi in the Libyan civil war and fled to Mali loaded with weapons and equipment.

Unfortunately, the Islamists' area of control includes Timbuktu, the fabled trading center near the River Niger and the edge of the Sahara. From the 12th century AD it was a center of learning with a large university, a flourishing book trade, and many resident scientists. It was the center of a tolerant brand of Sufi Islam that sought to learn from the world, not change it.

The fundamentalists, who called themselves Ansar Dine, have decided the many medieval shrines of Muslim saints are against Islam and are systematically destroying them. If that's not bad enough, the city is home to hundreds of thousands of medieval manuscripts, many of which have not been copied. If Ansar Dine decides these need to be burned, priceless documents of the past like this early astronomical treatise will disappear forever.

As usual with militant religious groups, Ansar Dine isn't exactly holy. UNICEF says they are forcing children to serve as soldiers and sex slaves. Why is it that religious control always ends up being about hurting kids? So far, world leaders have done nothing but wring their hands and say tsk tsk. Timbuktu doesn't have any oil, so like Syria, the people and their past will be decimated before anything is done.

BBC has a good slideshow of Timbuktu's endangered treasures here.

Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons.


  1. Cultural revolutions show the shortsighted-ness of many religious movements. Burning of books and documents is a time honoured way that those in control destroy the truth.

    Guns and oil speak louder than words. Very timely post.

  2. What a loss! Doesn't matter the religion - those are a piece of history.

  3. Timbuktu is a place I've always wanted to visit. It sounds a bit like Harar in Ethiopia, another medieval African city that's seen better days. At least I can study in Harar without getting my head chopped off. What a shame Ansar Dine is wrecking their own culture's heritage.

    I wrote a series about living in Harar that you can see here: