These 600-Year Old World Heritage Sites Might Be Rubble by August





The West African city of Timbuktu used to be one of Africa's richest and most important, a nexus of trade across the Sahara and a center of religious and scientific learning as far back as the 1400s. The relics of that history still stand in the form of such world heritage sites as the University of Sankore. More recently, this city in the sprawling West African country of Mali has been a tourism draw. But, on April 2, it came under new ownership: rebels from an ethnic minority known as Tuareg, who'd sought independence for years. Five days later they got it, declaring northern Mali as the independent country of Azawad. Then, on June 1, breakaway rebels with the extremist Islamist group Ansar Dine (translation: "Defenders of Faith") took control of Timbuktu.

In their first month of rule, Ansar Dine has shut down the tourism industry ("We are against tourism. They foster debauchery," a representative said), sent locals fleeing, and, over the past four days, destroyed half of the shrines that mark Timbuktu's ancient and remarkable history. The United Nations condemned the destruction and the International Criminal Court suggested it could be a war crime, but Ansar Dine insisted they won't slow down, later pulling a beautiful Gothic door off the Sidi Yahya mosque that became one of the world's great centers of learning during the 1400s. They follow an extreme form of Islam (though a relatively modern one; it emerged in late-1700s Saudi Arabia) that sees Timbuktu's shrines and mosque-universities as sacrilegious; a form of idol-worship. Their campaign is still going -- it's been compared to the Taliban's early-2001 destruction of ancient Buddha statues -- and some observers worry that many of Timbuktu's historical treasures, which have survived countless invasions and empires, won't live out the month....



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