Timbuktu: A City Losing its Soul
7/13/2012 12:40:34 PM -
In late June of this year, members of the Islamist organization, Ansar Dine, desecrated and destroyed the 16th century tomb of the Sufi Muslim saint, Sidi Mahmoud Ben Amar. The tomb, which was an UNESCO World Heritage Site, was vandalized before being burnt to the ground. But this attack was not simply an isolated incident; just a few weeks earlier, the group destroyed Timbuktu's independence monument, which depicted the city's protective genie, Al Farouk. Ansar Dine has also threatened to demolish any other tombs, shrines, monuments, and buildings within Timbuktu that it deems un-Islamic; all this, as members of the organization seek to impose their version of Sharia law throughout the region. This has caused some outside observers to draw parallels between the events unfolding in Timbuktu and the Taliban's destruction of the Buddhas of Bamiyan in Afghanistan (also a UNESCO World Heritage Site).
Timbuktu was once a city of great importance and power. Initially, little more than a seasonal outpost, Timbuktu became a permanent settlement sometime in the early 12th century. Located along the trans-Saharan caravan trade routes, the city soon grew rich through trade in salt, gold, ivory, slaves, and other valuable goods. Timbuktu's proximity to the Niger River also facilitated trade with people of the African interior. In addition, the city also served as a hub for intellectuals, historians, and Muslim scholars. It is likely that through trade, Islam was introduced to West Africa and was spread along the various routes of the trans-Saharan caravan trade system, which at the time included Timbuktu. The city's autonomist period came to an end when King Musa I of the Malian Empire annexed the city in 1324. Under Malian rule the city experienced a surge in building projects (it was during this time that the city's iconic Djinguereber Mosque was constructed) and became a center of Islamic learning.
Over time the Malian Empire's control of the city declined and Timbuktu slipped into a period of regional independence. Eventually, the city was absorbed into the Songhai Empire, sometime between 1468 and 1469. The Songhai leadership exerted the 15th century equivalent of soft power over its newly acquired territory; allowing the city a significant degree of autonomy over its internal affairs and commerce. At the same time, Timbuktu benefited from the military might of the Songhai Empire as well as its efficient administrational system. It was during this time that Timbuktu experienced its golden age; merchants form all over North Africa traveled to the city to purchase salt, gold, slaves, and horses. Timbuktu's ruling families became fabulously wealthy and the city acquired an almost mythical quality to people in Europe, Asia, and elsewhere.
However, this period too came to an end but unfortunately for Timbuktu, it also marked the period of economic and intellectual decline for the city. In 1591, Timbuktu was conquered by a Moroccan army known as the Arma. Moroccan rule, unlike that of others, was quite direct and authoritarian in nature. For example, in 1593, the Moroccan Sultan, claiming there was widespread disloyalty in the city, ordered his army to arrest and exile a large number of Timbuktu's scholars. In the resulting chaos many were killed or fled the city never to return. As time went by Timbuktu's decline only quickened. Soon Europeans were able to circumvent Africa, effectively ending the need for large scale trans-Saharan trade. The political conditions of the city (and the wider Saharan region) also deteriorated; Morocco broke off relations with the Arma, effectively making the region independent. Various groups, namely the Tuaregs, took advantage of the lapse in power a vied for control of the city. The situation remained much the same, until colonial France entered the scene claiming much of Saharan West Africa as part of its French West Africa federation in the late 19th century. Timbuktu remained under French control, although indirectly, until 1960 when it was incorporated into the modern nation of Mali.
On January 17th, 2012 Mali was rocked by the latest in a long line of Tuareg led rebellions that plunged the country's north (commonly referred to as Azawad) into chaos. Fueled by the return of heavily armed and battle-hardened fighters who had served in Gaddafi's armed forces, the Tuareg formed the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA). However, the MNLA initially lacked the needed manpower to further their cause and so made a strategic, albeit uneasy decision to ally with the Islamist organization, Ansar Dine.
Ansar Dine (also referred to as Ansar al-Din), which means "defenders of the faith" in Arabic, is a relatively new Islamist organization that has been making its presence felt in Azawad since early March of this year. The group's leader and founder, Iyad Ag Ghaly, was an important figure in the Tuareg rebellion of 1990-95 and is thought to have connections with AQIM. Ansar Dine has stated that its ultimate goal is to impose Sharia law throughout all of Mali, not just Azawad.
After two months of fighting, the MNLA and Ansar Dine made substantial gains, capturing most of Azawad including the major cities of Timbuktu, Kidal, and Gao. But this alliance was not to last; as early as May, reports began to surface claiming that members of Ansar Dine had been tearing down MNLA flags in Timbuktu and Gao, replacing them with their own. Less than a day after taking Timbuktu, Ansar Dine's leader, Ag Ghaly, made a radio announcement in which he declared that Sharia law would be enforced in the city; as a result, most of the city's Christian population fled. On June 29th, the MNLA was reportedly forced to leave Timbuktu under orders of Ansar Dine.
Shortly after driving the MNLA out of Timbuktu, members of Ansar Dine set about imposing their version of Sharia law within the city and the surrounding region; part of this involved the destruction of any tombs, shrines, monuments, and buildings that the group's leadership deemed un-Islamic. As mentioned above, Ansar Dine's attacks on historical landmarks began with Timbuktu's independence monument; since then, attacks have continued, growing ever more blatant in the eyes of the international community. The tombs of Sidi Mahmoud, Sidi Moctar, Alpha Moya, and the Cheikh el-Kebir mausoleum were all destroyed between late June and early July. On July 2nd, members of Ansar Dine broke down the door to the 15th century Sidi Yahya mosque that locals believed had to stay shut until the end of the world, so as to "destroy the mystery" of the ancient entrance. Videos have also begun to surface showing members of Ansar Dine destroying wooden statues of African gods as citizens look on. Most recently the ancient Djingareyber mosque was targeted; locals reported that about a dozen men armed with pickaxes and hoes arrived early on July 10th, they then proceeded to destroy two tombs within the mosque.
These acts have not gone entirely without consequence; UNESCO has placed many of Timbuktu's historical landmarks on a list of endangered World Heritage sites and has urged a halt to the destruction. Admittedly, this has done little to stop Ansar Dine from pursuing its agenda of ridding Timbuktu of un-Islamic or idolatrous influences; in fact, some observers believe that it may have unintentionally encouraged the destruction of the sites, by making them more valuable targets in the eyes of Ansar Dine. For the time being, it seems that little besides direct action will stop the destruction of Timbuktu's historic landmarks. The Islamist organization's power has continued to grow in past months and after forcing the MNLA out from Gao in late June 2012, Ansar Dine has gained de facto control of the whole of Azawad. To quote a local elder, 'Timbuktu is on the verge of losing its soul'; whatever fate awaits Timbuktu and its numerous historical treasures is, for the time being, very much in the hands of Ansar Dine.