Monday, 4 February 2013


The United Nations’ cultural agency UNESCO has promised to do “everything possible” to safeguard and to rebuild Mali’s “extraordinary” cultural heritage, but this will be no easy task given the uncertain future the West African nation is facing.

Irina Bokova
“Restoration and reconstruction (of cultural heritage) will give the people of Mali the strength and the confidence to rebuild national unity and look to the future,” said Irina Bokova, UNESCO’s director general, during a lightning visit to the country over the weekend.

“Now that Timbuktu will return to normalcy, we must do everything to help the people of Mali turn a new page in the spirit of national cohesion,” she stated.

The recent escalation of "wanton destruction" of Mali’s heritage made action all the more urgent, Bokova said. "UNESCO will spare no effort to help rebuild the mausoleums of Timbuktu and the Tomb of Askia in Gao, and we will mobilise all our expertise and resources to help safeguard and preserve the ancient manuscripts that testify to the region’s glorious past as a major centre of Islamic learning. I appeal to all our partners to work with us,” she added.

In addition to 16 mausoleums, Timbuktu’s three major mosques (Djingareyber, Sankore and Sidi Yahi) were first inscribed on UNESCO’s World Heritage List in 1988. The Tomb of Askia in the city of Gao was added to the list in 2004. But in July of last year, this tomb and Sidi Yahi were inscribed on the "In Danger" list following the destruction of 11 of the mausoleums, and of the doors of Sidi Yahi.

The destruction took place during a year of conflict that began in northern Mali in January 2012. The complex internecine warfare and military coups led French armed forces to launch a campaign last month with the purported goal or restoring stability and unity to the country, which had divided along ethnic and religious lines. As French and Malian forces retook Timbuktu in late January, retreating rebels set fire to the Ahmed Baba Institute, which held precious ancient manuscripts.

Peacetime Timbuktu © OUR PLACE The World Heritage Collection
Bokova’s trip, with French President François Hollande, was aimed at assessing the state of Mali’s cultural heritage and of manuscripts after the recent fighting. 

The agency says that an estimated 300,000 manuscripts are kept in private and public collections in Timbuktu. Many of them date from the 13th to 16th centuries and "were produced by great scholars from the city and elsewhere".

UNESCO, whose headquarters are based in Paris, said it wishes to define a plan of action with the government of Mali that will guide the agency’s support to cultural reconstruction and safeguarding.

After visiting Timbuktu on Saturday, Bokova travelled to the Malian capital Bamako with Hollande to meet with government officials.

“At this moment, we must act quickly to safeguard and rebuild this country’s outstanding cultural heritage – this is essential for national unity and reconciliation,” she said. “This heritage is a source of strength and confidence for the people of Mali as they consolidate the foundations of peace.”

UNESCO also announced that it would hold a “Mali Day” in Paris on Feb. 18, to highlight the country’s culture and Timbuktu’s history as a centre of Islamic scholarship. The day will also be used for fund-raising.