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FACTBOX -Timbuktu, ancient city heritage at risk
July 2, 2012 / 1:23 PM / 5 years ago

FACTBOX -Timbuktu, ancient city heritage at risk

REUTERS - Al Qaeda-linked Islamists have begun destroying Timbuktu’s ancient religious and historical sites, arguing they are un-Islamic. Here is a look at Timbuktu and a brief guide to what remains of the city:

A Tuareg nomad stands near the 13th century mosque at Timbuktu, Mali, March 19, 2004. REUTERS/Luc Gnago/Files

OVERVIEW:

- Ansar Dine, which experts say has links to local al Qaeda factions, has gained the upper hand over its erstwhile rebel allies, the secular MNLA group, after the two routed government forces and seized control of Mali’s desert north in April.

- The group wants to impose sharia, Islamic law, across Mali, and says Timbuktu’s famed shrines are un-Islamic and idolatrous.

- Timbuktu has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1988, but tourism has suffered from years of security problems with gunmen seizing three foreigners and killing a fourth on a street in Timbuktu last November.

TIMBUKTU - HERITAGE SITE:

- The World Heritage Site comprises 16 cemeteries - eight of which have now been destroyed - and mausoleums. They were deemed essential elements in a religious system as, according to popular belief, they constitute a rampart that shields the city from all misfortune.

- The most ancient mausoleum is that of Sheikh Abul Kassim Attouaty, who died in 1529. Other famous graves include those of the scholar Sidi Mahmoudou and of Qadi Al Aqfb, restorer of mosques.

BUILDINGS:

- In the 15th and 16th centuries Timbuktu was an intellectual and spiritual capital and a centre for the propagation of Islam throughout Africa. Its three great mosques - Djingareyber, Sankore and Sidi Yahia - date from that period. Although regularly restored, they are under threat from desertification too.

- The Mosque of Djingareyber was built in 1325. Between 1570 and 1583 the Qadi of Timbuktu, Imam Al Aqib, had it reconstructed and enlarged. The central minaret dominates the town and is its most visible landmark. A smaller minaret on the eastern facade completes the profile of the mosque.

- Like Djingareyber, the Mosque of Sankore, built during the Mandingue period, was restored by the Imam Al Aqib between 1578 and 1582. The Mosque of Sidi Yahya, south of Sankore, is believed to have been built around 1400. The mosque door was smashed by Ansar Dine fighters on Monday.

MANUSCRIPTS:

- Timbuktu’s manuscripts offer an unparalleled window into societies and intellectual traditions from the late 15th century onwards, but for decades they have been largely inaccessible.

- This vast legacy is on the verge of being lost due to brittleness, termites, insects and the weather, as well as through illegal sale, mostly to foreigners.

- Many manuscripts are written in local vernaculars, while others are in archaic forms of the present-day languages of Songhai, Tamasheq and Fulfulde. The Timbuktu foundation says there are about 700,000 documents. Some record complex genealogies and scientific theories.

- During the last 200 years, most of the manuscripts have been concealed, often buried or hidden to safeguard them from colonial agents, lawlessness and political instability. Today, the manuscripts are mostly in the hands of local libraries and private owners. But since April, they have been increasingly hidden away for safety.

ORIGINS OF THE CITY:

- Mali is named after an ancient empire which grew rich from trans-Saharan trade through the city of Timbuktu. The historically important city, founded in 1100 by Tuareg nomads, was once the richest in the region and was seen as a trading post on the trans-Saharan caravan route. Timbuktu was captured by the French in 1894 and in 1960 it became part of the newly independent Republic of Mali.

Sources: Reuters, archnet.org/, whc.unesco.org/, here, www.aluka.org (Reporting by David Cutler, London Editorial Reference Unit)

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