One person’s religious icon is another person’s reason to scream idolatry. That’s fine, as long as each respects the others belief systems. When that goes awry, destruction occurs and the world loses parts of its cultural history. Such is the story in Mali.
Over the past week, Islamists of the Ansar Dine group in and around the UNESCO-listed city of Timbuktu have so far destroyed at least eight of 16 listed mausoleums in the city, together with a number of tombs. They say the centuries-old shrines of the local Sufi version of Islam in Timbuktu are idolatrous.
And, according to Reuters, just today in Timbuktu the group broke down the door to a 15th century mosque that locals believed had to stay shut until the end of the world.
“In legend, it is said that the main gate of Sidi Yahya mosque will not be opened until the last day [of the world],” Alpha Abdoulahi, the town imam, told Reuters by telephone. Yet eight Islamist fighters had smashed down the door to the mosque early on Monday, saying they wanted to “destroy the mystery” of the ancient entrance, he said. “They offered me 50,000 CFA [$100] for repairs but I refused to take the money, saying that what they did is irreparable.”
While UNESCO has called the attacks “wanton destruction,” Mali’s government in the capital Bamako 1,000 km [630 miles] south has condemned the attacks, but is powerless to halt them after its army was routed by rebels in April. It is still struggling to bolster a return to civilian rule after a March 22 coup that emboldened the rebel uprising further north.
In other words, there is no mechanism to stop the attacks and therefore the destruction will continue. These attacks are not unlike the 2001 dynamiting by the Taliban of two 6th-century statues of Buddha carved into a cliff in Bamiyan in central Afghanistan.
So again we see, based on some of humanity’s worst, and based on their twisted need for religious righteousness based on man-made texts, more structures of special cultural or physical significance are lost forever. In these cases, everyone loses.
Located on an old Saharan trading route that saw salt from the Arab north exchanged for gold and slaves from black Africa to the south, Timbuktu blossomed in the 16th century as an Islamic seat of learning, home to priests, scribes and jurists.
Unfortunately for travelers, it is not advisable to head to Mali anytime soon, and many of the sites once available to see are gone.