18.02.2013 - ODG

We shall rebuild the mausoleums destroyed in Timbuktu - Libération (France)

Article published in "Libération" (France) on 18 February 2013.

Mali will rise again when its cultural heritage is rebuilt

by Irina Bokova, Director-General of UNESCO, Aurélie Filippetti, Minister of Culture and Communication of France, and Bruno Maiga, Minister of Culture of Mali

The liberation of the cities of Gao and Timbuktu by Mali’s army, supported by French forces, is a new step towards the country’s reconstruction and reunification. The humanitarian situation is critical, and the people have been harrowed and scarred by the deprivations of war and the months spent under the reign of terror.

How and where should the rebuilding start?

Mali will rise again through culture. UNESCO will rehabilitate the damaged mosques and rebuild the ruined mausoleums. France, which is assisting Mali in defending its territorial integrity, will fully support the reconstruction of its cultural heritage.

Heritage is the key to the identity and unity of all parts of Malian society. It is a force for social cohesion and crucial to reconciliation. The three mosques and 16 mausoleums in Timbuktu and the Askia Tomb in Gao, which are all UNESCO World Heritage sites, reflect the history and dignity of the entire population, and it was precisely for this reason that, on capturing the cities, Ansar Dine decided to ransack them. This was done deliberately to bring the people to heel and divide the society by preventing access to these “protective” places of worship.

The rehabilitation of the sites implies much more today than architectural repairs, for it is a means to strengthen unity among citizens in one of the country’s most cosmopolitan regions.  Northern Mali is a melting pot of Songhai, Sonrai, Tuareg, Fulani and Arab ethnic groups, who support each other in their agricultural pursuits, animal husbandry and trade. This heritage embodies the interweaving of the various strands of such cultural diversity. It is through their heritage that the people will find trust to rebuild national unity and look to the future.

UNESCO will muster all its expertise and resources to assist in protecting and preserving the hundreds of thousands of ancient manuscripts safeguarded in Timbuktu. The turbulent times ahead will be marked by the settling of scores, looting and a high risk of trafficking in cultural property. We have called on Mali’s neighbours to be on heightened alert to prevent the illegal export of its treasures. The fate of the ancient manuscripts is a matter of the utmost concern, for Timbuktu is home to more than 300,000 manuscripts dating from the twelfth to sixteenth centuries, which are held in private and public collections or hidden in cellars and attics. They are a direct legacy of Timbuktu’s heyday as the academic and cultural centre of Islam in Africa. To quote the Malian writer Ahmed Baba, who wrote in the sixteenth century, “salt comes from the north, gold from the south and silver from the country of the white men, but the word of God and the treasures of wisdom are only to be found in Timbuktu”. The protection of these centuries-old documents, threatened by ignorance, insects and sand, is an inconceivably complicated even Herculean, task. Some 10,000 manuscripts have been digitized to date and 40,000 are held at the Ahmed Baba research centre, established with UNESCO’s support in 1974 and torched by Ansar Dine. We shall work with our partners in order to preserve and, if possible, digitize this documentary heritage.

UNESCO has already provided French and Malian authorities and Chiefs of Staff with the necessary data for locating and protecting the sites – more than 8,000 “Heritage Passports” containing such information have been distributed to the troops.

UNESCO will send a mission to Mali as soon as the security situation permits, to assess the damage and identify the most pressing needs so that it can then target rehabilitation efforts more effectively in cooperation with the Government of Mali.

We shall do this out of our shared conviction that culture is part and parcel of a people’s dignity. It carries the values, beliefs and references on which societal life is based and transmitted to future generations. It is not by chance that the United Nations Security Council resolutions on the situation in Mali have laid such emphasis on cultural heritage. Whether in Libya, Iraq or Afghanistan, cultural heritage is a factor of resilience, a means of resuming inter-community dialogue and a necessary but fragile driver of peace-building.

Cultural heritage is vital to the country, the region and Africa. Timbuktu’s manuscripts give the lie to the much-touted biased views about Africa as a continent of oral traditions only. They are a trove of written poetry and of knowledge gleaned from the entire Muslim world in mathematics and law, and they reveal the boundless wealth of the continent’s history. The protection and dissemination of this heritage will turn a new page in cultural diplomacy and will show that UNESCO exists to promote mutual understanding and enhance cultural diversity.

This heritage is evidence of a long tradition of tolerance, knowledge sharing, dialogue and peace. The extremists wished to destroy it, and we must protect it by rebuilding those monuments and preserving those texts. As UNESCO contributed to the safeguarding of Egypt’s temples, threatened after the construction of the Aswan Dam, and rebuilt the Old Bridge of Mostar, destroyed during the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina, so too will it rebuild the mausoleums of Timbuktu. Their reconstruction will take time and money and will, perforce, stand as a symbol of the international community’s determination to protect culture as the last line of defence against barbarism.

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