Sunday, April 15, 2012

Rebellion Threatens Cultural Heritage

Cultural patrimony is constantly at risk from armed uprisings. Just two days ago, on April 13th, CNN reported on the Islamist and Tuareg rebels occupying Timbuktu. The rebellion poses a significant threat to cultural security; UNESCO has already voiced its fears that the occupation of the city could result in its destruction or the looting of Mali’s treasures.
Following the withdrawal of the Malian government forces, two rival groups have overrun the city: the Ansar Dine, who are fighting for the enforcement of Sharia law, and the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad, who are fighting for the independence of the nomadic Tuareg people. Timbuktu’s symbolic significance makes the city a “prize,” and the rebel groups are fighting for control of it.
Timbuktu is home to illustrious mosques and a trove of manuscripts. In 1988, the city was made a UNESCO World Heritage site. UNESCO has appealed to the rebel groups to “respect and protect” the city’s heritage. Fearing what will become of the ancient, fragile manuscripts that local families have protected for generations, librarians and curators have been attempting to hide the texts or smuggle them out of the city. Timbuktu’s heritage is important to the locals’ identity, cultural pride, and income. This uprising has already resulted in the displacement of an estimated 200,000 people in the surrounding region, and armed conflict could result in the destruction and looting of the city.
We are at risk of losing the cultural treasures that comprise Timbuktu’s world-heritage status. Timbuktu has existed within Western imagination as a mythical city filled with exotic treasures and intellectual wealth. How are we to preserve these ancient manuscripts in the face of armed uprising? How are we to safeguard the great mosques of Djingareyber, Sankore, and Sidi Yahia? We must take action against threats to our heritage; we must ensure cultural security.
Originally posted by Sally Johnson on

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