The Timbuktu Destruction Prosecution Begins

A traditional mud structure stands in the Malian city of Timbuktu May 15, 2012. Picture taken May 15, 2012. REUTERS/Adama Diarra
A traditional mud structure stands in the Malian city of Timbuktu May 15, 2012. Picture taken May 15, 2012. REUTERS/Adama Diarra

This week at the ICC the trial of Ahmad al-Faqi al-Mahdi began. He stands accused of directing the destruction of medieval tombs and a mosque, all world heritage sites, and all a part of Timbuktu’s 15th century heritage. Owen Bowcott reports for the Gaurdian that:


No Taliban or al-Qaida leader was charged with the destruction of Afghanistan’s sixth-century Bamiyan Buddhas, which were dynamited in 2001. Khmer Rouge genocide trials did not deal with the looting of Cambodia’s Hindu temples. Nor have Islamic State leaders been indicted for destroying Assyrian statues from Nineveh or razing Roman ruins in Palmyra.

The damage inflicted on Timbuktu, known as “the city of 333 saints”, followed the rebellion of al-Qaida-inspired Tuareg militias, armed with weapons from Libya, in the central African state in 2012.

Faqi, a local ethnic Tuareg, is said to have been a member of Ansar Dine and the head of Hesbah, known as the Manners’ Brigade, which considered the mausoleums – built to pay homage to deceased saints – to be blasphemous.

He is accused of directing attacks on 10 ancient mud-brick buildings in June 2012 and July 2012. One of the desecrated sites was the Sidi Yahya mosque, built in 1440 when Timbuktu was a regional centre for learning. It contained Prof Sidi Yahya’s mausoleum.

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Preservation of Heritage last year in Mali

The footlockers used to transport the manuscripts out of Bamako
The footlockers used to transport the manuscripts out of Bamako

Joshua Hammer has done some terrific reporting on the effort to preserve medieval manuscripts in Timbuktu last year:

At the time Haidara also had no idea if the militants knew how many manuscripts were in Timbuktu or how valuable they were. But quietly, determined not to attract attention, he laid contingency plans. With funds that Haidara’s library association already had on hand from foreign donors, he began purchasing footlockers in the markets of Timbuktu and Mopti, and delivered them, two or three at a time, to the city’s 40 libraries. During the day, behind closed doors, Haidara and his assistants packed the manuscripts into the chests. Then, in the dead of night, when the militants slept, mule carts transported the chests to safe houses scattered around the city. Over three months, they bought, distributed and packed nearly 2,500 footlockers.


  1. Joshua Hammer, The Race to Save Mali’s Priceless Artifacts, Smithsonian magazine,

UNESCO Director General Bokova on Protecting Cultural Heritage during conflict

Damage in Aleppo, Syria

In an op-ed for the IHT UNESCO Director General Irina Bokova discusses the damage done to cultural sites in northern Mali, Syria and elsewhere. She argues that “Culture stands on the frontline of conflicts, deliberately targeted to fuel hatred and block reconciliation.” That’s exactly right I think. The challenge will be what the rest of the world can do to prevent and repair this destruction.

She outlines the concrete steps UNESCO is taking: crafting an international legal framework, building stronger culture coalitions, and use culture to prevent conflicts:

Unesco works across the globe to harness the power of culture to bring people together and foster reconciliation. I saw this personally when Unesco helped restore the Old Bridge in Mostar, Bosnia Herzegovina, destroyed during the war in the 1990s. We saw the same power during the restoration of the Koguryio Tombs complex in North Korea, undertaken with the financial support of South Korea. This might sound high-minded compared to the terrible news we hear every day from conflict zones. And it is true that culture alone is not enough to build peace. But without culture, peace cannot be lasting. The world thought big when the convention was adopted in 1972. We need to think big once again, to protect culture under attack. We often hear that protecting culture is a luxury better left for another day, that people must come first. The fact is, protecting culture is protecting people — it is about protecting their way of life and providing them with essential resources to rebuild when war ends. This is why, for culture also, there is a responsibility to protect.

  1. Irina Bokova, Culture in the Cross Hairs, The New York Times, December 2, 2012, (last visited Dec 3, 2012).
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More Bad News for Heritage in Mali and Timbuktu

Intentional destruction of an ancient shrine in Timbuktu in July

Destruction in Mali appears to be ongoing:

In the searing summer heat, and against a stifling climate of fear, the Ansar Eddine is ratcheting up the pressure. In late July the group gave the order for the city’s centuries-old Sufi mausoleums to be leveled, declaring them to be at odds with their own hardline blend of Islamic faith. A UNESCO World Heritage site, Timbuktu has for centuries been associated with Sufis, a mystical and spiritual fraternity, themselves closely connected with Islam. More than 200 Sufi saints are buried in free-standing mausoleums and within the compounds of mosques, tombs that have become the latest target of the Defenders of the Faith. Regarding them as idolatrous, the Islamist militia has taken hammers and shovels to their baked-mud adobe walls. They even destroyed a pair of ancient tombs set in the compound of the city’s celebrated Djingareyber mosque.

  1. Tahir Shah, Trouble in Timbuktu, Newsweek Magazine, 2012,  (last visited Sep 5, 2012).
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Troubling News of Destruction in Mali

This image taken from a video shows armed men smashing a
15th century mosque in Timbuktu on Monday

Members of an armed group in Northern Mali have committed a number of acts of destruction in Timbuktu and the surrounding areas. They have smashed the “sacred door” of one of three ancient mosques. As many as six other mausoleums have been intentionally destroyed. Intentional destruction during armed conflict presents difficult problems, and Mali has asked the international community for concrete assistance.

The first step is a threat by the ICC. The prosecutor of the International Criminal Court Fatou Bensouda has described this destruction as a war crime: “My message to those involved in these criminal acts is clear: stop the destruction of the religious buildings now. This is a war crime which my office has authority to fully investigate”. Her claims may have an impact, but more other concrete steps may be needed to halt this intentional destruction.

The destruction mimics that which took place in 2001 when the Bamiyan Buddhas were destroyed. Extremist groups in Mali are systematically destroying sites. Perhaps urgent action by the ICC, or better yet the United Nations Security Council can halt this systematic destruction.

From Al Jazeera, here is a report showing the destruction:

  1. Pascal Fletcher, Timbuktu tomb destroyers pulverise Islam’s history, Reuters, July 3, 2012, (last visited Jul 3, 2012).
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New Seizures

David Nishimura picked up on a couple of major seizures last week in Paris and Moscow which indicate the illicit trade in antiquities is still going strong.

First, the BBC reports that in Paris over 650 Malian objects were seized at the Charle de Gaulle airport (see picture from BBC). The artifacts included axe heads, flintstones, and rings. Most of the objects dated from a couple thousand BC, however some may have been over 200,000 years old. These objects should soon be returned to Mali, however the archaeological context surrounding them is of course lost. There is no word on what may have alerted the French authorities to this shipment. It seems there were “[looking] out for artefacts being exported from specific countries such as Mali”.

A similar story from from Moscow: MosNews reported last week that Russia’s “cultural watchdog” agency had seized Byzantine-era items from Turkey. Some of the objects appear to have been taken from the Museum of Anatolian Civilizations in Ankara back in 1963.

Both shipments were seemingly on their way to American dealers and collectors.

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