Fabled Timbuktu in Peril From Malian Coup

Fabled Timbuktu in Peril From Malian Coup

With lives endangered, democracy trampled and historical archives at risk, it’s time to act.

A drama of major proportions is unfolding in Mali, where a coup d’état, combined with violent regional rebellion, has resulted in both the collapse of the state and the loss of significant territory. At stake are many lives, as well as historical documents and artifacts of incalculable importance to African history.

Last week brought reports that rebels had “pillaged and looted” archives in Timbuktu documenting the city’s golden era of scholarship between the 12th and 15th centuries. It’s vital that the United States and the United Nations take an active interest in what is happening in Mali, take a stand and advocate for peaceful negotiations to remedy the current state of affairs and save these priceless treasures.

On March 22, 2012, junior officers led by Captain Amadou Sanogo took control of the military and removed President Amadou Toumani Toure from power. Disgruntled by the failure of the Malian army to reverse losses in the war against rebel forces in northern Mali, and disenchanted with widespread concerns of unacceptable levels of corruption in government, a number of Malians were initially supportive of the coup, while others were opposed to having the democratic process disrupted.

With the populace divided, disaster suddenly descended in the north, where rebel troops, taking full advantage of a government in disarray, launched an all-out assault on principal regional towns. In a matter of a few days, from March 30 to April 1, combined insurrectionary forces had established full control over not only Kidal but the fabled cities of Gao and Timbuktu as well.

Rare African Archives at Risk

Gao was a state of considerable significance in West Africa from at least the ninth century A.D. until the 15th, when it became the political center of the Songhay empire and presided over lands stretching from what is now northern Nigeria in the East to the Atlantic Ocean in the West, while extending far north into the southern reaches of what is now Libya. Gao became twinned with the intellectual and commercial center of Timbuktu during the legendary rule of Sunni Ali (d. 1492), and under the succeeding Askia dynasty when scholarship reached new heights.

In Timbuktu, the learned pursued all branches of erudition, including medicine, mathematics, astronomy and poetry, while contributing in large measure to the knowledge of Islam. So important were developments in Timbuktu that it became a leading intellectual center, comparing favorably with those found in North Africa. All of this came crashing down with the Moroccan invasion and military defeat of Songhay in 1591. History is arguably repeating itself some 420 years later