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Timbuktu Reclaims Its Treasures

PARIS, Feb 20 2013 (IPS) - Despite uncertainty and the ongoing conflict, Mali will work to rebuild and safeguard its cultural heritage, says the West African country’s minister of culture Bruno Maïga.

Maïga was in Paris this week to attend a “day of solidarity with Mali” organised by the United Nations cultural agency UNESCO at its headquarters here. The events brought together cultural experts, government officials, artists and academics to assess the damage done to Mali’s world heritage sites and ancient manuscripts, and to map out a plan of action.

“The jihadists…by burning manuscripts, prohibiting traditional practices in the occupied regions, forbidding the listening to music, sowing terror…wanted to crush our spirit, our very cultural essence,” Maïga said. “Their objective was to destroy our past, our culture, our identity, and overall, our dignity.”

Maïga told IPS that he hoped the day would lead to a “real beginning” of rebuilding Mali’s heritage. “I hope there will be concrete action, and that’s why I’ve come, despite all the difficulties.”

Sixteen mausoleums and the three major mosques in the iconic town Timbuktu were first inscribed on UNESCO’s World Heritage List in 1988. The Tomb of Askia in the city Gao, dating from 1495, was added to the list in 2004.

Last July this tomb and the mosque Sidi Yahi were put on the agency’s “in danger” list following the destruction of 11 of the mausoleums, and of the doors of Sidi Yahi.

The destruction – attributed to armed Islamist rebels – took place during the year of conflict that began in northern Mali in January 2012. As French and Malian forces retook Timbuktu in late January this year, retreating rebels set fire to the Ahmed Baba Institute, destroying some of the precious ancient manuscripts that were held there.

Maïga told journalists that about 2,000 to 3,000 manuscripts may have been lost but that an estimated 300,000 other documents are in safe-keeping. He declined to give their location, citing security concerns. Many of the texts date from the 13th to 16th centuries and were produced by renowned scholars from the city and other areas.

The manuscripts were in the process of being digitalised, but the rebels shattered computers and other equipment installed to do this, Maïga said. “They broke everything,” he told IPS, adding that a renewed digitalisation process is a priority for the ministry of culture, once peace has been restored.

“Mali has a very rich culture and history that has served to cement social cohesion,” Maïga said. “For hundreds of years, different communities have lived together in respect for diversity. It’s this diversity, this spirit of tolerance, and this creativity…that the Islamists have been trying to destroy. We must resolutely oppose this.”

Following a day of talks on Monday, Mali and its partners adopted a draft action plan for the “rehabilitation of cultural heritage and the safeguarding of ancients manuscripts.” Lazare Eloundou, chief of the UNESCO World Heritage Centre’s Africa unit, said that the cost of digitalizing the manuscripts and rebuilding the mausoleums was estimated at between 10 million and 11 million dollars.

He said that the agency had set up a special account to receive funds for the work ahead, and the day of solidarity was also a means of drawing attention to the need for contributions from private and public donors.

Aurélie Filipetti, France’s minister of culture and communication, who attended the day’s opening ceremony, said that French institutions would participate in the training of Malian cultural experts in the areas of conservation and restoration of patrimony.

“Mali is an important artistic, cultural and spiritual source, and the role of France, of UNESCO and of the entire international community is to help the Malian people to rediscover their dignity and the pride in their culture,” Filipetti told journalists.

“When France intervened, it was to preserve the territorial integrity of Mali and above all to safeguard the Malian people,” Filipetti added. “And the Malian people need their heritage and culture.”

Institutions such as the Paris-based Quai Branly Museum, which focuses on indigenous art and civilisations, and the National Library of France will lend their expertise to the restoration and reconstruction work, Filipetti said.

“No spiritual or temporal principle can justify depriving a people of their history,” she said.

As the conflict continues, with sporadic attacks, experts fear that Malian cultural artifacts will become part of the international trade in illicitly obtained art objects that is valued at 6 to 8 billion dollars annually.

UNESCO officials said that some items were already believed to be on the market, but the agency hopes that neighbouring governments would act to prevent objects entering their countries.

UNESCO’s director-general Irina Bokova said that the agency would work with its partners and with the international police organisation Interpol to stem the sale of such art objects. She also stressed the importance of culture to nations.

“We want to send a very strong message about the importance of culture, about the importance of heritage,” she told journalists. “A message that rejects the destruction of heritage because it destroys the identities of people.”

Bokova, who visited Mali at the beginning of the month with French President François Hollande, said she saw firsthand the burnt remnants of some of the manuscripts.

“For us, Timbuktu, Gao, the heritage of Mali all go beyond the sheer description on the World Heritage List because (they show) the development of Islamic civilisation, and of dialogue among cultures. The manuscripts…have records of Islamic science, of medicine, of astronomy, of spirituality, philosophy,” Bokova said.

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