Timbuktu is not the first cultural sanctuary to be threatened by the political and religious conflicts that has become increasingly common and more prevalent each day. In 2001 Afghanistan’s Bamiyan province was home to the destruction of Buddha idols by Taliban fighters. Now, it is the libraries of Timbuktu that are threatened by potential ground combat in the city.
Mali has been experiencing conflict since March of 2012, when a coup resulted in the overthrow of the elected government. Since that point Mali has been a tumultuous country experiencing anything from air strikes and angry mob storms to protests. The Times labels the situation as currently moving towards resolution, as French forces have been able to reinstate their authority throughout many of the northern cities in the country. Timbuktu is one of the most prevalent cities on the radar of those concerned with the conflicts in Mali, considering the valuable culture that could be lost if it were to become the focus of any serious violence. The nomadic ethnic Taureg are the people who have been labeled as the “custodians of Timbuktu’s old literary traditions” and have protected over 300,000 manuscripts through times of peace and conflict. Currently all of the manuscripts are in safekeeping, but the cultural significance of the manuscripts and Timbuktu makes the area a target. Last June Timbuktu already experienced some cultural destruction, and it now holds a place on UNESCO’s list of endangered cities.
Since last March when rebels took the city, thousands of residents have been fleeing south to escape the Shari’a law, which would govern them if they stayed. Those responsible for protecting some of the thousands of manuscripts have done so either by locking them in safes or by hand-carrying them out of the city as they fled. Banzouman Traoré, one of the people who has helped to protect and catalogue the whereabouts of the documents, commented, “We have spared no effort to take the manuscripts away from any risk of damage, which is why we’ve moved them to discreet, secure locations.”
But the concern revolves around the entire city, not just the historical manuscripts kept in Timbuktu. More specifically, Timbuktu’s three earthen-brick mosques of Djingareyber and the kings’ treasury are threatened by the conflicts. UNESCO highlighted the cultural significance of the monuments: “Timbuktu and its three great mosques reflect the golden age of an intellectual and spiritual capital in the fifteenth century. These mosques have played a vital role in spreading Islam in Africa. They carry the identity and dignity of a whole people.” Since this assertion the fate of Timbuktu is looking better as French and African forces have responded to the Islamic militants. However, the threat that potential ground combat imposes on the treasures in Timbuktu is undeniable and provides organizations like the U.N., and specifically UNESCO, the reassurance for the need to ensure the protection of threatened areas of historical and cultural value.