A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Monday, July 2, 2012

Heritage Destruction: Salafis Eradicating Timbuktu's Greatness

Somewhere, Ibn Battuta is weeping.

Although usually not within the purview of this blog, the takeover of the northern, Tuareg parts of Mali (the self-proclaimed "Azawad") first by the MNLA and more recently by radical Islamist groups this year, with links across the borders into Libya and Algeria, have forced attention to the ancient Islamic heritage of the reason. I've posted about Timbuktu's glorious past before, but now, following the fall first of Timbuktu and more recently of Gao to radical Salafist rebels of the Ansar Dine and MUJWA movements, that heritage is in danger. After destruction over the weekend of medieval Saint's tombs in Timbuktu, the Islamists have now destroyed an ancient door, kept closed for centuries, on one of Timbuktu's three great historic mosques, Sidi Yahya:
Among the tombs they destroyed is that of Sidi Mahmoudou, a saint who died in 955, according to the UNESCO website. In addition, on Monday they set upon one of the doors of the Sidi Yahya, a mosque built around 1400. Local legend held that the gate leading to the cemetery would only open on the final day at the end of time.
Local radio host Kader Kalil said that the members of Ansar Dine arrived at the mosque with shovels and pickaxes and yanked off the door, revealing a wall behind it. Kalil said that they explained they were doing so in order to disabuse people of the local legend and to teach them to put their whole faith in the Quran.
"Since my childhood, I have never seen the door on the western side of the mosque open. And I was born in 1947," said Kader, a longtime resident of the city. "When we were children, we were told that the door would only open at the end of time. These religious people want to go to the source, to show us that this is not true. .... Of course our population is not happy. The women, especially, are crying a lot."
Slideshow here. They have sworn to destroy every mausoleum in Timbuktu. UNESCO has put both Timbuktu and the Tomb of Askia in Gao on the Endangered List of heritage sites, which is unlikely to have much impact on the Ansar Dine. This French report shows video of some of the early destruction:

Destruction of tombs is often a Salafi demand: particularly in North Africa, where the Islamic cult of local saints is deeply ingrained, though Salafis have attacked Sufi tombs in Egypt and elsewhere, and when the Saudi Kingdom expanded into the Hijaz in the early 20th Century, many ancient tombs were destroyed by committed Wahhabis. While these monuments, and even the great mosques in Timbuktu, may not be as spectacular as the Buddhas of Bamiyan (destroyed by the Taliban), the destruction of Islamic monuments by those claiming to act in the name of Islam seems even more appalling somehow, though the destruction of heritage monuments is indefensible on any grounds.

As usual, one of the more perceptive commentators is kal at The Moor Next Door, whose latest post-fall-of-Gao analysis is here. MUJWA — the Movement of Unity and Jihad in West Africa — is something of a mystery; it seems to be a sort of offshoot from Al-Qa‘ida in the Islamic Maghreb, but with special emphases:
MUJWA’s propaganda during the Battle of Gao displays its intelligent exploitation of local grievances. A video released to regional media (and posted to the jihadist forums) shows the group’s effort to link its narrative to Songhai nationalist feelings; the video bears the name “Askia,” the name of a Songhai emperor with strong symbol power ... MUJWA has moved from former AQIM subcontractors, members and even drug runners to finding tactical support among members of the city other ethnic groups in the city, in the process projecting an image of ‘popular support’ which may or may not reflect sympathy with the Islamist groups per se as much as a perception of a common enemy.
It's a complicated story; two Twitter tweets (one from kal):

All this aside, this is a tragedy for Mali,for Africa, and for Islamic heritage in general.

1 comment:

Lameen Souag الأمين سواق said...

This sad story has an even more direct North African connection: the 15th-century scholar after whom this mosque was named, Sidi Yahya al-Thaalibi al-Tadallisi, was from my hometown, Dellys. He was a cousin and contemporary of the so-called patron saint of Algiers, Sidi Abd al-Rahman al-Thaalibi; a later member of the same family, Abdelaziz Thaalbi, founded Tunisia's Destour Party.