Timbuktu: Keeping History Alive

Timbuktu has long been considered an important world landmark that represents a rich Muslim heritage and strong ties to learning and education. Under the rule of King Mansa Musa (early 1300s), the city became one of the biggest trading posts for the all important gold and salt trade. Mansa Musa became the richest man in all of history; adjusted for inflation he is worth more than 3 times Bill Gates fortune.

Timbuktu became a world renowned epicenter of knowledge and culture. Mansa Musa was a devout Muslim and made the nation’s religion Islam, but he did not force it upon his people. They were still free to choose for themselves. He was famous for making a pilgrimage to Mecca in which he traveled with about 60,000 people, which is roughly the same amount of people as the capitol of Wyoming, and upon his return bringing great scholars and architects back to Mali. This cultural foresight and thirst for knowledge, along with the important trade resources, ushered in a Golden Age that lasted until the beginning of the 16th century.

After this Golden Age, Morocco took control of Timbuktu and established it as their capital. The once great city continued to decline, and in the 1890s the French took control until 1960. Timbuktu then became part of the Republic of Mali. In 1988 Timbuktu became formally recognized on the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) World Heritage List. UNESCO sites are designated as having “outstanding universal value.” In 2012, in response to armed conflict in the region, Timbuktu was added to the UNESCO List of World Heritage in Danger.

In early 2012, desert nomads known as Tuareg tribesmen backed by Al Qaeda started an uprising and in March, managed to seize several cities including Timbuktu. By April the Touregs handed their power over to the militant groups like Ansar-Dine and Al Qaeda. These rebels declared independence for what they call the state of Azawad. After taking much of the northern part of the region, the Ansar-Dine rebels vowed to destroy all shrines in the city. Using pick-axes and manpower the rebels destroyed mausoleums and sanctuaries related to Islamic saints. The mayor of Timbuktu says that the Islamist group that was holding the city set fire to a library containing thousands of priceless manuscripts, some more than 1,000 years old. The documents, mostly in Arabic, chronicle the geography, history, and science of the Sahara region and of Islam itself. The mayor described the loss of “the history of Timbuktu, of its people” as a “devastating blow” to world culture.

What was once known as a jewel of Africa revered for its cultural understanding and openness has become a battleground of racism. This January, the UN-backed French Army deployed ground troops. They have managed to push out most of the rebels and have freed Timbuktu. Although the battle has been won for now, this war is not over yet.

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