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Mali: Timbuktu’s cultural heritage more damaged than first estimated, UN agency says

The door of the Sidi Yahia Mosque in Timbuktu, Mali, before and after it was attacked.
UNESCO/Lazare Eloundou Assomo; Ministère de la culture du Mali/DNPC
The door of the Sidi Yahia Mosque in Timbuktu, Mali, before and after it was attacked.

Mali: Timbuktu’s cultural heritage more damaged than first estimated, UN agency says

Damage to Timbuktu’s cultural heritage due to fighting between Government forces and Tuareg rebels is more extensive than first estimated, a United Nations-led team said today following an assessment of the fabled city.

Lazare Eloundou Assomo of the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization’s (UNESCO) World Heritage Centre said the destruction is “even more alarming than we thought.”

During the 28 May to 3 June visit, the team, led by UNESCO with support from the UN mission in Mali (MINUSMA) and international and local experts, discovered that 14 of Timbuktu’s mausoleums, including those that are part of the UNESCO World Heritage sites, were totally destroyed.

In addition, the fighting destroyed parts of the Djingareyber Mosque, one of three madrassas comprising the University of Timbuktu. It is believed to have been built around 1327, mostly out of straw and wood with some limestone reinforcements.

The emblematic El Farouk independence monument in the shape of a horse at the entrance to the city was also destroyed, Mr. Eloundou Assomo told journalists in the capital, Bamako, as well as in New York via video conference from Mali.

While an estimated 4,203 manuscripts from the Ahmed Baba research centre were lost, another 300,000 were exfiltrated, mainly to Bamako, and “are in urgent need of conservation,” he added.

UNESCO and its partners are now putting together a list of priorities and focusing in more detail on the damages.

Based on an action plan for rehabilitation and preservation made public on 18 February, “an estimated $11 million has to be found to begin work as soon as possible,” said Mr. Eloundou Assomo.

Some support in the form of national experts and financial assistance has already been received, particularly from France and Luxembourg, he added. A national workshop is scheduled for tomorrow to determine the immediate next steps.

Also taking part in today’s news conference were Cultural Minister Bruno Maiga; Lassana Cissé, the National Director of Mali Cultural Heritage; Aurélien Agbénonci, the UN Resident Coordinator in Mali; Juma Shabani, the UNESCO Representative in Mali; and Richard Zink, the Chief of the European Union Delegation in Mali.

According to UNESCO, Timbuktu was an intellectual and spiritual capital and a centre for the propagation of Islam throughout Africa in the 15th and 16th centuries.

During the mission, the team also met with local administrative and military authorities, religious leaders and those responsible for the safe keeping of cultural heritage to get a better understanding of “the living heritage of the region, the cultural and religious practices that define the peoples of the region,” said Mr. Eloundou Assomo.

He added that the team had lengthy exchanges with the local communities “on the best ways to reconstruct the mausoleums, safeguard the manuscripts, give new life to intangible heritage and weave this action into a broader movement for sustainable peace and reconciliation.”

The team, guided by religious authorities, also visited the mausoleums at the Cemetery of the Three Saints and the Alpha Moya cemetery, as well as the Ahmed Baba Institute and several private libraries to evaluate the condition of the manuscript collections, and assessed the state of conservation of the three mosques.

Northern Mali was occupied by radical Islamists after fighting broke out in January 2012 between Government forces and Tuareg rebels. The conflict uprooted hundreds of thousands of people and prompted the Malian Government to request assistance from France to stop the military advance of extremist groups.

Earlier this week, UNESCO awarded the Houphouët-Boigny Peace Prize to French President Francois Hollande for his role in stopping “the violation of Mali’s territorial integrity, the violation of human rights, the taking of hostages and the destruction of the cultural heritage of humanity in Timbuktu.”

“Having assessed the dangers and the repercussions of the situation on Africa and on Mali in particular, as well as on the rest of the world, the Jury appreciated the solidarity shown by France to the peoples of Africa,” the Jury’s President, Joaquim Chissano, said.

Created in 1989, the Prize is intended to honour individuals and organisations that have made a significant contribution to peace and stability around the world.

At the award ceremony, UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova reiterated the agency’s commitment to help Mali reconstruct and safeguard its cultural heritage.

“UNESCO saved the temples of Egypt and rebuilt the Mostar Bridge,” she said. “UNESCO will rebuild the mausoleums of Mali.”