Introducing the Taliban of Timbuktu

By John J. Metzler ,Special to The China Post

UNITED NATIONS — The name Timbuktu conjures up mystery and the magic of a far off place seemingly untouched by modernity, let alone violence. But the ancient city of Timbuktu, lost in the remote reaches of the Sahara, has sadly been thrust into the headlines as an Islamic fundamentalist group has been destroying historic and religious sites to the shock of the world. Ironically these sites include Muslim tombs and mosques which are part of another sect of Islam. Along the crossroads of caravan trade commerce and religious learning dating to the 13th century, Timbuktu sits on the parched edge of the Sahara and West Africa. Part of the landlocked country of Mali, Timbuktu has been a center of lore and legend since French explorers put the place into contemporary consciousness. Mali is the victim of tumultuous political, ethnic and religious violence, the northern part of the country has fallen under the control of a number of separatist and Islamic factions who oppose the central government in far-off Bamako, and have tried to establish an independent state, Azawad. Mali’s recent troubles are rooted in the disintegration of Libya; many Tuareg tribesmen who served Gadhafi as mercenaries returned to their homelands. Though the Tuareg who live in many of the surrounding countries were historically marginalized in Mali, now they have returned with vengeance, weapons stockpiles and a cause.

Beyond the cultural and religious desecration by the Ansar Dine movement, what’s transpiring in Mali under the political radar is the creation of a radical Islamic emirate similar to the Taliban rule in Afghanistan before 2001. Few are watching as the patrimony of an ancient desert kingdom is being desecrated and destroyed.

Irina Bokova, director of the U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), stated her dismay over the destruction of three sacred tombs which are part of the World Heritage List. “Reports that mausoleums have been destroyed is extremely distressing,” she warned. “There is no justification for such wanton destruction.”

“It’s paradoxical and incomprehensible” professor Jean-Michel Djian was quoted in Le Figaro, “If they do it is because they have no culture, it’s a form of gratuitous violence,” where a movement wishes to destroy significant historic monuments.

According to Paris-based UNESCO, Timbuktu was an intellectual and spiritual center as early as the 15th and 16th centuries, as well as a hub of the trans-Saharan trade. Many of the buildings are of a unique style of adobe type pyramids, dating from the 1490s.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon warned “Such attacks against cultural heritage sites are totally unjustified.”