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  • Originally published 06/10/2013

    UNESCO team says destruction to Mali’s fabled Timbuktu is more alarming that first estimates

    UNITED NATIONS — A team of experts led by UNESCO said Friday it has found far more serious damage to Mali’s cultural heritage in the fabled city of Timbuktu than initially estimated, with 16 mausoleums totally destroyed and over 4,000 ancient manuscripts lost.Lazare Eloundou Assomo of UNESCO’s World Heritage Center, who led the mission, said a visit to the damaged and destroyed sites on Thursday revealed that the destruction by Islamist rebels who occupied Timbuktu and the rest of the north until early this year “is even more alarming than we thought.”“We discovered that 14 of Timbuktu’s mausoleums, including those that are part of the UNESCO World Heritage sites, were totally destroyed, along with two others at the Djingareyber Mosque,” a famous learning center built in 1327 which also needs to be repaired, he said....

  • Originally published 05/29/2013

    Timbuktu's manuscripts face new threat

    (CNN) -- For the second time in five months, Timbuktu's treasured collection of ancient manuscripts is under threat.Earlier this year, it was thought that most of the 300,000 precious documents were destroyed by Islamic fundamentalists when the northern Mali conflict entered the fabled city.But as it turns out, only 4,000 documents were burned by the rebels. The rest were smuggled out of Timbuktu six months before the incursion by a team of local families who have long safeguarded their city's famous library, often in their own homes....

  • Originally published 05/06/2013

    How scholars in Timbuktu protected medieval texts under an Islamist occupation

    Sidi Lamine gently opens the creaky wooden door that leads to his collection of manuscripts. Housed in a dark, windowless room, hundreds of medieval texts line handsome wooden bookshelves that reach to the ceiling. A musty smell lingers over everything. On an ornate table under dusty glass rest the rarest books in his collection, several of which he quietly mentions were written in 1010."I haven't visited this room in more than 10 months," he says, "because I was scared the Islamists would know that I have manuscripts like these, and they would destroy them. I thank God they are still OK."Mr. Lamine, who says he's at least 70 years old and has been helping to preserve the texts since he was 10, recounts how Islamist militants took over this city recently, threatening the precious works. "Under the occupation," he says, "Islamists found families with manuscripts, and those manuscripts have not been seen since."...

  • Originally published 04/23/2013

    Calligrapher keeps ancient learning alive

    Homemade twig pens stand like off-duty soldiers in a jar on Boubacar Sadeck's worktable. The morning sun steals into a room stuffed with a jumble of papers, ink bottles and stretched animal hides. He sits thoughtfully before a blank sheet of paper, with several old manuscripts — the color of dark tea and covered with Arabic script — open at his side.Occasionally a breeze wafts in and playfully flicks one of the old brown pages to the floor.Copying the words of ancient scholars in elegant Arabic calligraphy makes Sadeck feel close to heaven."My weakness, my love, is calligraphy," said the scribe, who fled Timbuktu, famed for its collection of centuries-old manuscripts, when Islamist militias invaded last year. "If I go a day without writing, I feel as if something is missing or strange. When I sit down with my paper and my pen, I feel wonderful. I feel at ease."Copying and recopying old manuscripts is an ancient Timbuktu calling. In the 15th century, there were hundreds of scribes; the job was one of the most highly paid and prestigious occupations in the city, then an intellectual center and trade hub....

  • Originally published 03/07/2013

    Chester A. Crocker and Ellen Laipson: The Latest Front in a Long War

    Chester A. Crocker is professor of strategic studies at Georgetown University’s Walsh School of Foreign Service and served as assistant secretary of state for African Affairs from 1981 to 1989. Ellen Laipson is president of the Stimson Center.HISTORY has often shown that military victories do not automatically translate into political success. This is true in the recent military victory of French and government of Mali forces in their fight against radical Islamist insurgents who tried to seize power in the North African nation. The small victory in Mali is just the beginning of what will likely be a very long struggle for control of the Sahel — the trans-Saharan badlands that stretch from the Atlantic Ocean to the Red Sea.We all know now that President George W. Bush was premature when he said in 2003 that “major combat operations in Iraq have ended” as he stood in front of a banner reading “Mission Accomplished.” It would be equally premature today to say that success in Mali signals the defeat of jihadist forces in the Sahel.

  • Originally published 02/07/2013

    Ousmane Kane: Is Islam in Sub-Saharan Africa More (or Less) Peaceful than Elsewhere?

    Ousmane Kane is Alwaleed Professor of Contemporary Islamic Religion and Society and Professor of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations at Harvard University.The destruction of the sixth-century monumental Buddha statues of Bamiyan in March 2001 by the Taliban shocked many persons concerned with the preservation of world cultural legacy. Such examples of iconoclasm were not new in Islamic history. In the name of the restoration of the purity of the faith, groups with similar persuasions have destroyed Sufi and Shiite shrines in various parts of the Arabian Peninsula during the nineteenth and twentieth century. But until very recently, few observers believed that such examples of iconoclasm will ever reach the Sahel. Although the Sahelian countries had overwhelming Muslim populations, Islam in Sub-Saharan Africa was believed to be peaceful compared to elsewhere in the Arab World. In most of the twentieth century, no armed Islamic group was to be found anywhere in the Sahel. Very few Sub-Saharans trained in Afghanistan during the Soviet occupation or joined Al-Qaida, and suicide bombing was unheard of until a few years ago. This is not so much because intolerant Islamic groups were not to be found in the Sahel, but they had neither the sophistication nor the logistical and financial resources to challenge state power.

  • Originally published 01/31/2013

    Mali manuscripts in Timbuktu are mostly safe, South Africa university says

    JOHANNESBURG — Islamist extremists damaged or stole only a limited number of manuscripts in Timbuktu in Mali before they fled the fabled desert city, a South African university said Wednesday.People in the north Malian city who have knowledge of the documents reported that there was no malicious destruction of any library or collection, said the University of Cape Town, which helped fund a state-of-the-art library to house manuscripts.“The custodians of the libraries worked quietly throughout the rebel occupation of Timbuktu to ensure the safety of their materials,” said the university. Islamist rebels have been in control of Timbuktu for nearly 10 months....

  • Originally published 01/29/2013

    Timbuktu: ancient seat of Islamic learning

    SEVARE, Mali — Timbuktu, the fabled desert city where retreating Muslim extremists destroyed ancient manuscripts, was a center of Islamic learning hundreds of years before Columbus landed in the Americas.It is not known how many of the priceless documents were destroyed by al Qaida-linked fighters who set ablaze a state-of-the-art library built with South African funding to conserve the brittle, camel-hide bound manuscripts from the harshness of the Sahara Desert climate and preserve them so researchers can study them.News of the destruction came Monday from the mayor of Timbuktu. With its Islamic treasures and centuries-old mud-walled buildings including an iconic mosque, Timbuktu is a U.N.-designated World Heritage Site....

  • Originally published 01/28/2013

    Timbuktu mayor: Mali rebels torched library of ancient manuscripts

    Islamist insurgents retreating from the ancient Saharan city of Timbuktu have set fire to a library containing thousands of priceless ancient manuscripts, some dating back to the 13th century, in what the town's mayor described as a "devastating blow" to world heritage.Hallé Ousmani Cissé told the Guardian that al-Qaida-allied fighters on Saturday torched two buildings where the manuscripts were being kept. They also burned down the town hall and governor's office, and shot dead a man who was celebrating the arrival of the French military.French troops and the Malian army reached the gates of Timbuktu on Saturday and secured the town's airport. But they appear to have got there too late to save the leather-bound manuscripts, which were a unique record of sub-Saharan Africa's medieval history....

  • Originally published 01/19/2013

    The French Way of War

    IN 1966, the French president, Charles de Gaulle, war hero and general nuisance in Allied eyes, wrote President Lyndon B. Johnson to announce that France was pulling out of full membership in NATO and would expel NATO headquarters from France.“France is determined to regain on her whole territory the full exercise of her sovereignty, at present diminished by the permanent presence of allied military elements or by the use which is made of her airspace; to cease her participation in the integrated commands; and no longer to place her forces at the disposal of NATO,” de Gaulle wrote.After the humiliating capitulation to the Nazis, a tremendous shock to a prideful and martial France, it was not especially surprising that de Gaulle should seek to restore France to a place at the top table of nations, capable of defending its own interests with its own means at its own pace and pleasure.

  • Originally published 01/16/2013

    David A. Bell: The War in Mali is a Reminder of France's Grand Malaise

    David A. Bell is Professor of History at Princeton University. Born in New York City in 1961, he received his A.B. from Harvard and his M.A. and Ph.D. from Princeton.It remains to be seen whether France's military intervention in Mali will be considered a military success, but it already seems possible to count it a political one. The war has earned support from across the French political spectrum, President François Hollande has garnered acclaim for his leadership, and the French public broadly supports the country's stated humanitarian mission. The intervention recalls the days when “la grande nation” laid claim to an ambitious international role, particularly within its former colonial empire.But in today's France, this portrait of unity and resolve is actually something of an aberration. Far from expressing a confident sense of mission, the French public has recently been more inclined to a sense of decline, malaise, paralysis and crisis. And it is at least partially justified. 

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