UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova today announced that UNESCO will do everything possible to safeguard and rebuild Mali’s extraordinary cultural heritage, which she described as “a vital part of the country’s identity and history and fundamental for its future. Its restoration and reconstruction will give the people of Mali the strength and the confidence to rebuild national unity and look to the future.”
“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.” the Director-General said. “The recent escalation of wanton destruction of Mali’s heritage makes this all the more urgent.
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.”
UNESCO will send a mission, as soon as security permits, to undertake a complete evaluation of the damage and determine the most urgent needs, in order to finalize a plan of action, in cooperation with the Government of Mali, that will guide reconstruction and rehabilitation.
Timbuktu’s three major mosques, Djingareyber, Sankore and Sidi Yahi, along with 16 mausoleums, were first inscribed on UNESCO’s World Heritage List in 1988. The Askia Tomb in the city of Gao followed in 2004. In July 2012, following the destruction of 11 of the mausoleums, and the doors of Sidi Yahi, both sites were inscribed on UNESCO’s List of World Heritage in Danger. UNESCO was instrumental in providing topographic maps and coordinates to the armed forces of Mali, France and Chad to help prevent shelling of these sites.
“In times of turmoil, the risks of illicit trafficking of cultural objects are at the highest, with Mali’s renowned ancient manuscripts being the most vulnerable.”, said the Director-General, highlighting the importance of the 1970 Convention. In this context, she renewed her call to the leaders of Mali’s neighbouring countries, Interpol, the World Customs Organization and all those involved with the art market, urging them to be vigilant as to the illicit export and traffic of any cultural artefact out of the country. “These treasures are extremely valuable and vulnerable. We must act quickly,” she said.
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 or came from the ancient markets of North Africa, Al-Andalus and the eastern-most countries of the Arab region. These ancient manuscripts bear unique witness to centuries of civilization, exploring such subjects as religious studies, mathematics, medicine, astronomy, music, literature, poetry, and architecture.
In 1974, UNESCO helped to set up the Ahmed Baba research centre, where are stored about 40,000 of the manuscripts. Of these, some 10,000 have been digitized. The Director-General said, “We will work with both the private and public collections, to ensure the effective preservation of this documentary heritage, including its digitization when possible”.