When jihadists overran northern Mali in 2012, they destroyed thousands of ancient manuscripts in the medieval university town of Timbuktu. They demolished numerous mausoleums and burned more than 4,000 ancient manuscripts. However, a handful of courageous people risked their lives to rescue more than 300,000 manuscripts and hide them at secret locations, saving this unique cultural heritage from oblivion.
The Buddha statues in Afghanistan, the ruins of Nimrod, the temple at Palmyra: when Islamists take over, treasures of the world’s cultural heritage that do not fit into their religious-fundamentalist worldview come under grave threat. The jihadists’ attention-grabbing actions pervade the media and aim to destroy ancient identities and cultural commonalities. The famous manuscripts of the medieval university town of Timbuktu – testimony to a highly developed culture of scripture and Islamic-African learning – were in serious danger when Islamists occupied northern Mali. But some of Timbuktu’s residents were able to prevent the worst, bringing this world cultural heritage to safety in a historically unique operation supported by UNESCO. Our film ‘Monuments Men of Timbuktu’ combines the story behind the secret salvation of Timbuktu’s manuscripts with hitherto unreleased footage from the time of the jihadi occupation and documents the suffering of the people under jihadists occupation.
Encyclopedia Britannica reports that Timbuktu, French Tombouctou, city in the western African country of Mali, historically important as a trading post on the trans-Saharan caravan route and as a centre of Islamic culture (c. 1400–1600). It is located on the southern edge of the Sahara, about 8 miles (13 km) north of the Niger River. The city was designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1988. In 2012, in response to armed conflict in the region, Timbuktu was added to the UNESCO List of World Heritage in Danger.
By the 14th century it was a flourishing centre for the trans-Saharan gold and salt trade, and it grew as a centre of Islamic culture. Three of western Africa’s oldest mosques—Djinguereber (Djingareyber), Sankore, and Sidi Yahia—were built there during the 14th and early 15th centuries. After an extravagant pilgrimage to Mecca in 1324, the Mali emperor Mansa Mūsā built the Great Mosque (Djinguereber) and a royal residence, the Madugu (the former has since been rebuilt many times, and of the latter no trace remains). The Granada architect Abū Isḥāq al-Sāḥili was then commissioned to design the Sankore mosque, around which Sankore University was established. The mosque still stands today, probably because of al-Sāḥili’s directive to incorporate a wooden framework into the mud walls of the building, thus facilitating annual repairs after the rainy season. The Tuareg regained control of the city in 1433, but they ruled from the desert. Although the Tuareg exacted sizable tributes and plundered periodically, trade and learning continued to flourish in Timbuktu. By 1450 its population increased to about 100,000. The city’s scholars, many of whom had studied in Mecca or in Egypt, numbered some 25,000.