UNESCO Director-General appeals for concerted action to prevent loss or destruction of Timbuktu’s documentary heritage
UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova today voiced alarm over the safety of Timbuktu’s invaluable cultural heritage, following reports that rebels have over-run and looted centres containing thousands of ancient books and documents that bear testimony to the city’s extraordinary history. The Director-General appealed to all relevant authorities, including Mali’s warring factions, neighbouring governments, Interpol, customs organisations, the art market and collectors, to be on the alert against any attempt to traffic items stolen from these centres.
“Reports of the rebel takeover of Timbuktu’s Ahmed Baba Institute of Higher Islamic Studies and Research (IHERI-AB) and other cultural institutions are cause for great alarm,” the Director-General said. “These centres contain ancient documents, written or copied locally, purchased in the markets of North Africa, Al-Andalus or the Mashriq, or sent by pilgrims from distant Islamic lands. Many date back to Timbuktu’s period of glory between the 12th and 15th centuries. They cover a vast range of subjects from religious studies to mathematics, medicine and astronomy, music, literature, poetry, architecture and esoteric practices, and bear witness to the rich history of the city as a cultural crossroads and centre of learning.
“This heritage must be protected. The citizens of Timbuktu have rallied to protect these ancient documents, and I salute their courage and dedication. But they need our help. I solemnly appeal to all concerned to be especially vigilant and to work together to prevent the loss of these treasures that are so important for the whole of humanity.”
The Director-General has contacted national authorities in countries sharing borders with Mali to remind them of their obligations under the provisions of the 1970 UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property. Mali and its neighbouring countries are bound by the Convention, the only international instrument focused exclusively on the fight against the illicit trafficking of cultural property. More specifically, the Director-General urged national authorities of the countries concerned to comply with Article 9 of the Convention, which calls upon States Parties “to participate in a concerted international effort to determine and carry out the necessary concrete measures, including the control of exports and imports and international commerce…”
Mali is also bound by the 1954 Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict.
UNESCO acts as the secretariat for the Hague Convention and its two Protocols as well as the 1970 Convention. The Organization stands ready to provide technical assistance to Mali and its neighbouring countries in the application of these international treaties.
The Director-General’s appeal follows a call on 5 April 2012 for the preservation of the Timbuktu, which is also a World Heritage site.
Timbuktu manuscripts: Africa’s written history unveiled, The UNESCO Courier, 2007-5, pp. 7-9
Ancient chroniclers of West Africa's past; journeys of discovery through the 'country of the black people', The UNESCO Courier, October 1959.