UNESCO team finds damage to Mali culture alarming

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A team of experts led by UNESCO said Friday it has found far more serious damage to Mali’s cultural heritage in the fabled city of Timbuktu than initially estimated, with 16 mausoleums totally destroyed and over 4,000 ancient manuscripts lost.

Lazare Eloundou Assomo of UNESCO’s World Heritage Center, who led the mission, said a visit to the damaged and destroyed sites on Thursday revealed that the destruction by Islamist rebels who occupied Timbuktu and the rest of the north until early this year “is even more alarming than we thought.”

“We discovered that 14 of Timbuktu’s mausoleums, including those that are part of the UNESCO World Heritage sites, were totally destroyed, along with two others at the Djingareyber Mosque,” a famous learning center built in 1327 which also needs to be repaired, he said.

The El Farouk independence monument at the entrance to the city was also razed, Eloundou Assomo said.

Timbuktu, an ancient seat of Islamic learning, has been home for centuries to a library of ancient, camel-skin bound manuscripts covering science, astrology, medicine, history, theology, grammar and geography as well as a 700-year-old mud mosque.

Al-Qaida linked Islamists swept into the city in the spring of 2012 with their own, severe interpretation of Islam, intent on quashing what they saw as the veneration of idols instead of the pure worship of Allah. Part of that included reducing to rubble the mausoleums honoring the city’s saints. The Islamists ran Timbuktu and the rest of northeastern Mali for months before being chased out by French-led troops in January.

During the Islamists rule, Eloundou Assomo said, the international experts estimate that over 4,200 manuscripts from the Ahmed Baba research center were lost, including between 2,000 and 3,000 that were burned and others that were stolen.

Another 300,000 manuscripts were smuggled out - mainly to the capital Bamako - for safekeeping and are now in urgent need of conservation, he said.

Eloundou Assomo estimated cost of rehabilitating and preserving the ancient manuscripts - the top priority for the city’s religious leaders - at $11 million.

“Some of these funds have to be found so we can begin as soon as possible on this work,” he said.

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