In medieval times, Timbuktu, in present-day Mali, was an important intellectual center
Known for its great mosques and trove of manuscripts, the city has world-heritage status
Islamist and Tuareg rebels have occupied the city in recent weeks
UNESCO fears the important site could be destroyed or looted by rebels
For centuries, Timbuktu has existed in the Western imagination as a byword for the most exotic, far-flung place conceivable.
Situated on the southern edge of the Sahara, it acquired a near-mythical status in distant countries for its fabled inaccessibility, and for the accounts of the dazzling material and intellectual wealth to be found there.
Intrigued visitors continue to be drawn by the treasures that survive from the city’s medieval golden age as an important academic, religious and mercantile center – its great earthen mosques, and hundreds of thousands of scholarly manuscripts held in public and private collections.
The city, today part of present-day Mali and known as the “city of 333 saints” for the Sufi imams, sheiks and scholars buried there, was made a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1988.
But there are fears this carefully preserved legacy could be under threat from groups of armed rebels who have overrun the ancient city this month, in the vacuum left by retreating Malian government forces.
Irina Bokova, the director general of UNESCO, has called on the groups to respect and protect the city’s heritage. “Timbuktu’s outstanding earthen architectural wonders that are the great mosques of Djingareyber, Sankore and Sidi Yahia, must be safeguarded,” she said.
“Along with the site’s 16 cemeteries and mausolea, they are essential to the preservation of the identity of the people of Mali and of our universal heritage.”
Timbuktu, which has a population of about 50,000, is held by at least two rival groups who have been involved in a northern uprising against Mali’s government, headquartered in the southern capital of Bamako.
One is Ansar Dine, a Salafist Islamist group that seeks to impose Sharia law. The other, the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA), has been fighting for an independent homeland for the nomadic Tuareg people in the country’s north, and earlier this month unilaterally proclaimed independence for the region they call Azawad.
Following the overthrow of Libyan President Moammar Gadhafi, many Tuareg who had been fighting for Gadhafi’s forces reportedly returned to northern Mali, bringing their weapons with them. Last month, a Tuareg uprising triggered a military coup against Mali’s President Amadou Toumani Toure by officers dissatisfied with the government’s efforts to put down the insurrection. But in the disorder following the coup, the rebels seized large areas of the north.
Martin van Vliet, a researcher at the African Studies Center in Leiden, the Netherlands, said that while Timbuktu was no longer a city of vital economic or military importance, it stood out as an important prize for the rebels due to its symbolic significance.