By Patricia Lee Sharpe
Timbuktu, for most Westerners, is simply another word for the end of the world. Today, in fact, it’s a somewhat decayed real city on the southern edge of the Sahara desert.
Once upon a time, however, Timbuktu was a vital commercial and cultural crossroads for innumerable African civilizations. For this reason, non-Muslim historians as well as Muslims who treasure all aspects of their richly complex past are alarmed by the destruction that’s been taking place in Timbuktu and other ancient cities like Gao since Salafists wrested control of the rebellion in Northern Mali from Tuareg insurgents.
Most reportage from the area has emphasized the spoiling, wholly or in part, of shrines and mosques accused of encouraging idol-worship. But the threat goes beyond the usual crude iconoclasm of al Qaeda-related sects. According to photographer Alexandra Huddleston, “not only are thousands of ancient manuscripts and holy sites under threat, but also an ancient scholarly culture.” She has documented this culture in the past, and now she has created a video that shows us what we are in danger of losing.
Go to this site for Alexandra's heart-rending introduction to Timbuktu and the culture it fostered over the centuries. Go to this site and weep. And protest. If you want to know more, follow the links that Alexandra has provided.
And here are some pieces I've written on developments in Northern Mali: Iconoclasts in Timbuktu and Malaise in Mali: Is a Sudan-like Solution Possible?