Timbuktu in ruins: Squeezing culture in theological bottleBy JANET OTIENO | Wednesday, July 4 2012 at 10:17
When some bone-headed Islamist militants descended on ancient tombs of some of Mali’s most famous poets and Islamic teachers, they claimed that they were doing the work of Allah.
Sharia, they said, did not allow the building of tombs higher than 15cm above the ground.
The fabled city of Timbuktu has been an intellectual and spiritual capital and was a centre for the propagation of Islam throughout the Sahel in the 15th and 16th centuries. Its historic shrines were listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site.
The Islamists of the Ansar Dine group first destroyed the tombs of Sidi Mahmoud, Sidi Moctar and Alpha Moya then attacked four more including Cheikh el-Kebir's mausoleum.
After smashing several shrines, Ansar Dine spokesman Sanda Ould Bamana told news agencies that they had embarked on that mission since the cultural sites contravened its strict interpretation of Islam.
As if this was not enough, the Al Qaeda-linked Ansar Dine also raided the ancient and revered 15th Century Sidi Yahia mosque in the same historic city.
Timbuktu, which is on the edge of the Sahara desert, has some unique architecture which was constructed mainly from mud and wood hundreds of years ago.
The city is also home to about 700,000 ancient manuscripts held in about 60 private libraries.
The Islamists say the destroyed this priceless cultural heritage in the name of God. The question is, which religion and ideology professes such a mission of destruction?
To Malians, the destruction of this cultural heritage, which is quite simply irreplaceable, is akin to bringing down the pyramids which are synonymous with Egypt.
At the moment, inhabitants of Timbuktu are understandably very furious with the senseless destruction as they have very sentimental attachment to these sites.
Assoumane Maïga who is a resident of Timbuktu told Africa Review: "Every Friday, we gather in these graves and other mosques to ask God for help. But we don’t adore or worship these monuments, as rebels say."
A similar act of cultural vandalism was carried out by the Taliban when they overrun Afghanistan. They destroyed precious Budhist monuments that had been erected in pre-Islamic times.
In fact, the monuments had become the country's most popular tourist attractions. Among the targeted treasures were the 1,500-year-old statues of Bamiyan Buddhasinin the northwest of the capital Kabul. Another second-century (BC) Buddhist complex in Ghazni was razed to the ground.
Using religion to enforce extremist and bizarre interpretations of law is what I am taking issue with and which I straightaway refer to as cultural terrorism.
In as much as they are advancing what they imagine is the cause of God, these militants need to know that cultural heritage cannot be easily squeezed into a narrow theological bottle.
The 1977 and 1997 Geneva Conventions prohibit destruction of cultural property in internal as well as international wars.
It is time good-hearted Muslims and the world at large retaliated against these mindless attacks by wiping out the rebels and their extremist ideology.
Email: email@example.com / Twitter: JanetOtieno
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