International Community Looks on in Horror as Islamist Extremists Decimate Timbuktu's Historic Shrines

International Community Looks on in Horror as Islamist Extremists Decimate Timbuktu's Historic Shrines
The City of 333 Saints' Great Djingareyber Mosque in Timbuktu
(Issouf Sanogo/AFP/Getty Images)

This past weekend, the world watched in horror as Islamists from the al-Qaeda-linked group Ansar Dine razed centuries-old mausoleums in Timbuktu. While UNESCO has led the international outcry, calling for an immediate halt of the destruction spree that began last Saturday, a group of roughly 30 Ansar Dine Islamists, armed with axes, shovels, and automatic weapons, continued to carry out what they believe to be a divine order to destroy the idolatrous shrines of local saints.

The devastation to Timbuktu's historic tombs comes only days after UNESCO designated the Malian outpost as an endangered heritage site at the request of the Malian government. In its 16th century heyday, Timbuktu was a gold-rich city situated along an old Saharan trading route. During this time, the three great Islamic mosques of Timbuktu were restored to their glory, and the city grew as an Islamic seat of spiritual learning.

With this came a remarkable religious build-out: the city erected new shrines for some 300 local saints, overhauling the landscape with a patently organic brand of architecture. This past weekend, Ansar Dine threatened to destroy all 16 main mausoleum sites, as locals told The Guardian, with little regard for the international uproar that has ensued.

"The only tribunal we recognize is the divine court of Shariah," said Oumar Ould Hamaha, a spokesman for Ansar Dine, acknowledging the group's blatant indifference to pleas from the United Nations. "It's our Prophet who said that each time that someone builds something on top of a grave, it needs to be pulled back to the ground," he explained. "We need to do this so that future generations don't get confused and start venerating the saints as if they are God."

The destruction of Timbuktu brings to mind the razed Buddhas of Bamiyan, two colossal standing Buddha statues carved into a cliff in Afghanistan in the 6th century and dynamited by militant Islamists in 2001. But as Guardian arts writer Jonathan Jones pointed out in a pained howl of a blog post, the Buddhas of Bamiyan were non-Islamic religious idols; the shrines of Timbuktu, on the other hand, are part and parcel of a city that was crucial to the spread of Islam in Africa. Their destruction is a reminder that militant groups like Ansar Dine are but small factions of an exceedingly diverse religion.

But perhaps the most injured party in the wake of these events would be Africa, a continent that has struggled to preserve its cultural monuments from being sacked and pillaged. Timbuktu's shrines are so invaluable to Mali — especially as the country has been actively cultivating its tourism industry — that their destruction constitutes "a possible war crime," according to one private radio station. Locals could only watch helplessly from afar this past weekend and into Monday as pick-up trucks surrounded Timbuktu’s treasured monuments and Ansar Dine carried through on its threats. Media sources report that neighboring African countries are currently seeking backing from the U.N. for a military intervention, but it remains to be seen how they can and will retaliate.