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Djingareiber mosque, Timbuktu
Since the year 1327, the Djingareiber mosque has stood in Timbuktu, Mali. Made of earth, straw and fibre, it has stood the test of time and temperature, and provides a worship space for over 2,000 of the faithful.

It may not survive the next few months.

This mosque, along with others in Timbuktu, is a UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) World Heritage Site.

It is part of the ancient Sankore Madrasah, or University of Timbuktu.

The University of Timbuktu was a medieval University in Mali, West Africa which comprised three schools; namely the Masajid of Djinguereber, the Masajid of Sidi Yahya, and the Masajid of Sankore. During its zenith, the university at Timbuktu had an average attendance of around 25,000 students within a city of around 100,000 people. There were four levels within the University curriculum, that included the "Circle of Knowledge", the "Superior Degree", the "Secondary Degree", and the "Primary Degree". Teachings mostly consisted of Quranic principles; however, literature covering topics of science, mathematics, and medicine are also observed, among other disciplines.
It, and other ancient sites in Timbuktu, are now the center of an international controversy involving world governments, UN organizations, historians and archaeologists since it is being openly and willfully destroyed by Islamist Tuareg rebels who belong to Ansar Dine, "Defenders of the Faith".

Al Jazeera reported:

A hardline religious group occupying northern Mali has destroyed 15th-century mausoleums of Sufi Muslim saints in Timbuktu and have threatened to demolish the remaining 13 UNESCO world heritage sites in the fabled city, witnesses have said. [...]

"They have already completely destroyed the mausoleum of Sidi Mahmoud (Ben Amar) and two others. They said they would continue all day and destroy all 16," Yeya Tandina, a local Malian journalist, said by telephone.

"They are armed and have surrounded the sites with pick-up trucks. The population is just looking on helplessly," he said, adding that the Islamists were currently taking pick-axes to the mausoleum of Sidi El Mokhtar, another cherished local saint.
The Islamist Ansar Dine group backs strict sharia, Islamic law, and considers the shrines of the local Sufi version of Islam idolatrous.

I wrote a piece earlier this month for Black Kos, Tears for Timbuktu, to call attention to the situation, which is worsening with each day that passes.

(Continue reading below the fold.)

When there are so many problems around the globe—war, drought, famine, disease, economic instability, and when our focus here in the U.S. ranges from daily survival to electoral politics, it is often difficult to engage interest in events occurring far from our world. Yet we all must become the guardians of the past—world historic places are a legacy we must preserve for future generations.

If someone was attempting to destroy the Coliseum in Rome, or the Acropolis in Greece, we would probably have headlines blaring in the news daily, and it would have been stopped. But Timbuktu, the country of Mali, and much of the African continent is still a mystery, unknown, misunderstood or ignored by many here in the West.

The situation is made more complicated by the spiderweb of North and West African politics, the fall of Gaddafi in Libya, the instability of the government in Mali, real or alleged ties to al-Qaeda, alleged cocaine trafficking, and the long term conflict between regional governments with semi-nomadic Tuareg ethnic groups seeking autonomy, who include competing factions like the Tuareg National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA), Ansar Dine, The Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO) and the Azawad National Liberation Front (FLNA).

The destruction of the ancient Sufi shrines in Timbuktu is not the only area of major concern.

Timbuktu Manuscripts
Scholars are also fretting about the fate of tens of thousands of ancient and brittle manuscripts, some from the 13th century, housed in libraries and private collections in Timbuktu. Academics say these prove Africa had a written history at least as old as the European Renaissance.

Days after the rebels took Timbuktu, local academics, librarians and citizens were hiding away the manuscripts to stop them being damaged or looted. Jeppie said researchers had since fled the city. Some collectors had smuggled their rarest documents out to Bamako.

Diagne said the biggest fear was that historic manuscripts and artefacts would become the object of looting and trafficking for profit - just another trading commodity in the trackless Sahara, where trafficking in drugs, arms and migrants has replaced the old caravans of slaves, salt and gold. He found it deeply ironic that the Ansar Dine tomb destroyers, who said they were upholding the name of Islam, were ignoring and denying through their acts the rich layered history and geographical spread of this great global religion. Noting the role Sufi believers played in spreading Islam beyond its Arabian heartland, Diagne said: "If it had not been for the Sufi orders, Islam would have been a local religion."

A call to institutions and scholars has gone out to preserve the ancient manuscripts of Timbuktu and Mali, and there is a long list of signatories to this petition.

The BBC has some of the background: Who, What, Why: Why do we know Timbuktu?

Once spelt as Timbuctoo, the city in northern Mali has come to represent a place far away, at the end of the world.

As the Oxford English Dictionary puts it, "the most distant place imaginable". [...]

Writers as diverse as DH Lawrence, Agatha Christie and Mr Men creator Roger Hargreaves further strengthened this association by references in their books.

Here in the states, when I was growing up, Timbuktu was always a mythical place. I remember hearing the phrase "From Kalamazoo to Timbuktu" as a kid and a song by that name recorded by Mitch Miller. There is also a children's book by that name.

As an historical side note, I was surprised to discover that there was a Timbuctoo, in New Jersey, a home to escaped and freed slaves.

Though I eventually visited Kalamazoo (the names had a delightful sound to a child) it wasn't until I was an adult that I got to go to Mali. After taking a course on the history of African Civilizations in college, I became familiar with the Mali and Songhai empires. The nomadic Tuaregs captured my imagination as an anthropologist, more than likely influenced by large doses of Frank Herbert's Dune series. His Fremen were heavily based on Tuareg culture, nomadic lifestyle and clothing.

Tuareg woman from Mali
My first encounter with Tuaregs was in 1971 in Algeria, and it was there that I became sympathetic to their political battles resisting settlement and extermination. I was particularly interested in the matrilineal culture of Tuareg women—who did not wear the veil—their men did.  

The recent demands by Tuareg Ansar Dine rebels for the institution of Sharia law, including the veiling of women, is perplexing since it flies in the face of Tuareg tradition. Mali, as a whole, is majority Islamic. Approximately 90 percent of the population is Muslim, either Sunni or Sufi. But the Islam practiced there has not been particularly hardline or fundamentalist, which is true in many areas of sub-Saharan Africa, and Mali is a secular state. When I visited Mali I saw no veiled women among any of the ethnic groups.

Mali's population encompasses a number of sub-Saharan ethnic groups, most of which have historical, cultural, linguistic, and religious commonalities. The Bambara are by far the largest single ethnic group, making up 36.5% of the population.Collectively, the Bambara, Soninké, Khassonké, and Malinké, all part of the broader Mandé group, constitute 50% of Mali's population. Other significant groups are the Fula (17%), Voltaic (12%), Songhai (6%), and Tuareg and Moor (10%). Mali historically has enjoyed reasonably good inter-ethnic relations; however, some hereditary servitude relationships exist, as do ethnic tensions between the Songhai and the Tuareg. Over the past 40 years, persistent drought has forced many Tuareg to give up their nomadic way of life.
The fundamentalist's insistence on imposing Sharia, combined with the desecration of shrines and the threat to historical documents, is creating conflict between the general population and the insurgents, as well as causing factionalism among competing rebel groups, who hold differing visions for the future of both Tuaregs and Mali.  

UNESCO, who has no real power to intervene, has forcefully denounced the wanton destruction. World governments, including ours, are taking strong verbal positions, but at this point armed intervention is not on the table—yet. The U.S. State Department has condemned the destruction and called for the cooperation of the Economic Community Of West African States (ECOWAS). "ECOWAS has called on Mali to request a UN-backed military intervention in order to try to win back the country's north."

Al Jazeera's Inside Story held an in-depth panel discussion on whether the Malian conflict is a threat to the entire region, and if a military intervention by regional powers is needed.

Inside Story, with presenter Ghida Fakhry, discusses with guests:
Mohamed Larbi Zitout, a former Algerian diplomat and deputy ambassador to Libya; Jeremy Keenan, a professor of social anthropology at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London and author of several books on the Sahara, including The Dark Sahara: America's War on Terror; and Tiebile Drame, a former Malian minister of foreign affairs who was also the regional crisis mediator for interim Malian President Dioncounda Traore.
The U.S. State Department point person on the escalating situation is the desk officer for Mali and Mauritania, Manoela Borges.  
Her email is:

Timbuktu is no longer far away. Mali is one of the world's poorest nations. They will not be able to handle this alone. We cannot ignore conditions in the Sahel region.

I pray for Mali's people and that the Shia sites and manuscripts survive. I hope that military intervention will not take place.  

Originally posted to Daily Kos on Sun Jul 15, 2012 at 06:00 AM PDT.

Also republished by Barriers and Bridges and Black Kos community.

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