By Omar Sacirbey
Religion News Service
(RNS) Fighting in Mali has destroyed or damaged many religious artifacts and buildings in Timbuktu, an ancient Islamic learning center, local experts and a United Nations team have reported.
“The destruction caused to Timbuktu’s heritage is even more alarming than we thought,” said Lazare Eloundou Assomo of UNESCO’s World Heritage Centre, the cultural agency that surveyed the historic city May 28 – June 3.
The team found that 14 mausoleums, including some listed among UNESCO’s World Heritage sites, were completely destroyed, while parts of the Djingareyber Mosque, built around 1327 with straw, wood and limestone, were also destroyed.
More than 4,200 historic manuscripts were lost from the Ahmed Baba Institute, named after one of Timbuktu’s most revered scholars, while another 300,000 were evacuated, mostly to Bamako, and “are in urgent need of conservation,” according to Eloundou Assomo.
Founded in the 5th century along the southern edge of the Sahara Desert, Timbuktu grew into a major intellectual and Islamic learning center that once had 11 universities.
“They’re important because they help document a sophisticated, educated civilization that existed,” said Okolo Rashid, executive director of the International Museum of Muslim Cultures in Jackson, Miss. which has a permanent collection of Timbuktu manuscripts and artifacts. “The U.N. understands the importance of preserving this history.”
Al-Qaida-linked militants and their erstwhile Tuareg allies occupied Northern Mali after pushing out Malian government forces in January 2012. The conflict turned about 400,000 people into refugees, and left thousands of others dead.
Malian forces regained control of most of Mali earlier this year with the help of French forces.
U.N. officials have estimated it will take at least $11 million dollars to help restore and preserve what has been damaged and what remains.