Reports that rebels have over-run and looted centres containing thousands of ancient books and documents in Mali’s historic city of Timbuktu has led the head of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) to appeal to all relevant authorities to be on the alert against any attempt to traffic items stolen from these centres.
“This heritage must be protected,” Director-General Irina Bokova stressed in a press release issued yesterday in Paris, calling for “concerted action,” including from Mali’s warring factions, neighbouring governments, Interpol, customs organizations, the art market and collectors.
“The citizens of Timbuktu have rallied to protect these ancient documents but they need our help,” she added.
Timbuktu’s centres contain ancient documents dating back to the city’s period of glory between the 12th and 15th centuries that bear witness to the rich history of the city as a cultural crossroads and centre of learning. They cover a vast range of subjects, including religious studies, mathematics, medicine, astronomy, music, literature and poetry.
Ms. Bokova has contacted national authorities in countries bordering Mali to remind them of their obligations under the 1970 UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property. Mali is also bound by the 1954 Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict.
A World Heritage site since 1988, Timbuktu was taken over by rebels on 1 April following their swift progression in the northern part of Mali. Fighting between Government troops and Tuareg rebels that resumed in January has forced tens of thousands of people to leave their homes.
Earlier this month, Ms. Bokova had stressed that the Timbuktu site, along with its 16 cemeteries and mausolea, are “essential to the preservation of the identity of the people of Mali and of our universal heritage.”