Timbuktu under threat

5 mins read

Bloodied but unbowed, Malian heritage weathers a storm of conflict

In the 15th and 16th centuries, Timbuktu was the epitome of Islamic spiritual and intellectual learning. Today, modern conflict threatens to destroy Mali’s past. Here, Kevin MacDonald takes a look at the history, heritage, and invaluable legacy of this legendary city.

There was a time when the only place in Mali known to members of the public was the mythic and inaccessible town of Timbuktu. Even so, I would still find many people surprised to learn that it actually existed, and was not some Shangri-la. The adventurous considered it the ultimate goal for a trans-African backpacker. The media branded it as a ‘city of gold’ or the site of ‘Africa’s first university’ depending on their predilections. I prefer to see it as the tip of a heritage iceberg, the subconscious European historical memory of West Africa’s great empires.
Timbuktu is well known because of its association with the gold trade during the apogee of the empires of Mali and Songhai. Ethnically, it has long been a diverse, cosmopolitan place, playing a major role in the histories of the Malinke, Songhai, and Tuareg peoples. According to the Tarikh es-Soudan (Chronicle of the Sudan, written in 1655), it was founded c.AD 1106-1107 as a seasonal Tuareg pastoral camp. However, recent excavations led by Douglas Post Park have shown that urbanism in the area goes back to between AD 150 and 650, at the tell of Tombouze – just 5km (3 miles) south of historic Timbuktu. However, it seems Tombouze was abandoned around AD 1000 – and thus probably vanished before the hamlet of Tuareg pastoralists was founded. Around AD 1290, Timbuktu was re-established as a Trans-Saharan trade entrepot by Mansa (King) Sakoura of Mali, and began to be scribed into legend.

Road to riches
Mansa Musa, Mali’s celebrated monarch who was recently (and speculatively) named in The Independent as the richest man who ever lived, has an association with Timbuktu. He is known to have undertaken the hajj (pilgrimage) to Mecca in AD 1324. According to al-Umari, writing in 1342, the amount of gold spent by Mansa Musa and his entourage in Cairo devalued the mithqal from 25 to 22 dirhams. On his return to Mali, it is said that Mansa Musa had a new mosque built in every town where he spent a Friday night. While this is probably more hyperbole than reality, he did convince the renowned Andalusian poet-architect al-Sahili to return with him. Much of the major Malian construction of the era – including Timbuktu’s Djingereber mosque (c.AD 1335) – are ascribed to al-Sahili.

Timbuktu’s birth as a city of academic scholarship dates from the time of the Empire of Songhai (from AD 1493). During the reign of Askia Dawud (AD 1549-1583) libraries were established which have continued to exist to this day. West Africa’s greatest historic chronicles were written in the city in the 1650s and 1660s. By 2012, the many scattered historic manuscripts in the town were largely consolidated in the Ahmed Baba Institute – established in 1973 – with 30,000 manuscripts, augmented by three further public repositories whose holdings comprised an additional 20,000 manuscripts.
Previously, Timbuktu’s heritage was viewed as being imperilled largely either by termites eating texts or by the encroaching Sahara Desert. In the 1950s alone more than a metre (3ft) of windblown sand is recorded as having accumulated in the town. This menace has been amply demonstrated by Timothy Insoll’s 1998 excavations near Timbuktu’s Sankore Madrasa complex. He had to dig through 5m (16ft) of sand merely to reach layers dating to AD 1650. Sadly, he was forced to abandon excavation due to their depth and the very real danger of collapse. It appears that a great quantity of Timbuktu’s earliest structures are buried beneath the sands, perhaps to a depth of 10m (32ft), and therefore excavations to reach their foundations would have to be on a monumental scale.

Today, any old conceptions of Timbuktu and Mali have been replaced by unwelcome associations with al-Qaeda, terrorism, warfare, and the destruction of global heritage. For the first time I, and many of my colleagues, have been persistently consulted by the media. Normally one would have preferred to showcase Mali’s past glories, vibrant cultures, and artistic traditions – not the current litany of horrors. Ultimately the former will again eclipse the latter, but this might take some time.
Outside the Nile Valley, no part of Africa enjoys a richer archaeological heritage than Mali’s Middle Niger and its environs: evidence for Sub-Saharan Africa’s earliest ceramics at Ounjougou, dating to c.9000 BC; first domestic crops – millet found at Karkarichinkat dating to c.2500 BC; and most precocious urbanism – possibly Dia c.800 BC, certainly Jenné-jeno by AD 400.
Tells (mud-brick settlement mounds) ranging in date over three millennia fill the landscape, most of them barely investigated. Textually recorded empires span the historical record, some leaving monuments and architectural remains in their wake: Ghana/Wagadu, c.AD 300-1100; Mali, AD 1230-1450; and Songhai, AD 1450-1600.
Mali has long been an international crossroads, a bread basket of the empire, a nexus of trade, and a source for gold. It was to access the gold of West Africa that Portuguese navigators of the Atlantic tried to bypass Arabo-Berber middlemen, establishing trading forts along the coast. The unintentional result was the Trans-Atlantic slave trade. Mali’s heritage is thus central to broader historical narratives.

Current danger 

Before 2012, as an archaeologist of Mali, one’s greatest concern was to protect its heritage from looters, with figurative terracottas from its tell sites sometimes yielding six figures at international art auctions. The goal was to gain the goodwill of local farmers, interdict digging gangs, shame the international art market, and to excavate aspects of the region’s still-emergent historic narrative before it was destroyed. But, by the summer of 2012, with most of northern Mali occupied by an array of jihadist forces, either destroying or threatening to destroy crucial standing heritage at Timbuktu and Gao, all our previous worries seemed rather inconsequential.

Preceded by the return of Tuareg mercenaries from Libya in October 2011, and a spate of European kidnappings in Timbuktu and Hombori the following month, a ‘Tuareg rebellion’ began afresh in northern Mali in January 2012. Such ‘Tuareg revolts’ have a long history in Mali, with five since 1916 alone. But this revolt was different, secular Tuareg separatists were outnumbered in the ranks of the rebels by jihadist groups leavened with foreign extremists.
While initially one may have spoken of the long cycle of Tuareg encroachment into the south at times of instability, a phenomenon dating back to the 15th century, the increasing dominance of a range of foreign Islamist forces (from Algeria, Nigeria, Pakistan, etc) made for an unparalleled situation. This was not merely a rebellion, it was an invasion, ideologically unlike anything that had gone before it during the 20th century.
By April, the advance of the jihadists (Ansar Dine, Mujao, and AQMI) swept rapidly over the cities of Timbuktu and Gao; by June, they had chased the moderate separatist elements of the Tuareg MNLA from Gao, Timbuktu, and other key locales. The result was forced submission to sharia law for the towns’ inhabitants, coupled with the destruction and menace of key heritage sites.
On 30 June 2012, the destruction of historic Timbuktu mausoleums by the Salafist jihadists began. Eight mausoleums were levelled, and the 15th-century Sidi Yahia mosque was damaged. At the same time there was the threat voiced by the jihadist group Ansar Dine that all burial monuments standing over 20cm (8in) would be destroyed.

This article is an extract from the full article published in World Archaeology Issue 58. Click here to subscribe

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.