On March 1, the International Criminal Court at The Hague formally charged Ahmad al-Faqi al-Mahdi, one of the leaders of the 2012 Islamist takeover of the Malian city of Timbuktu, with destroying the city’s cultural heritage—the first such international indictment. During June and July of that year, al-Mahdi took part in attacks on the mausoleums of Timbuktu’s Muslim saints, shrines that were deemed heretical under the strict Salafist religious code the occupiers tried to impose on the city. Using pickaxes, al-Mahdi and his group demolished the mud-brick buildings that had stood for five or six centuries and were central to Timbuktu’s rich cultural history. Among the targets of al-Mahdi and his fellow jihadists was the fifteenth-century Sidi Yahya Mosque; the jihadists smashed a sacred door that, according to long-held beliefs, would remain closed until the world’s last day.
The court’s decision to prosecute an act that victimized buildings, not people, says much about the West’s evolving response to radical Islamic jihad, and about the special significance of Timbuktu for the preservation of Islamic architecture and writings. In places like Afghanistan’s Bamiyan cliffs and the Syrian city of Palmyra, jihadists have tried to purge the historical record of what they regard as idolatrous or impure; both sites were mentioned by prosecutors at al-Mahdi’s hearing. Not mentioned there was another vicious act of destruction, aimed at the core of Timbuktu’s unique identity.
As jihadis retreated from the city, fleeing a French intervention that began in the first weeks of 2013, they set fire to thousands of centuries-old books in the Ahmed Baba Institute of Higher Learning and Islamic Research. It was not the contents of the books the jihadis resented—many were in fact Korans, or Koranic exegeses—but apparently, as Joshua Hammer writes in his new book The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu, the historical tradition from which they sprang: a golden age of literacy, learning, and intellectual debate at the heart of Islamic West Africa.
Timbuktu was founded in the twelfth century by traders traveling along trans-Saharan routes and the great Niger River; its population was a blend of Arabs, Foulani, Songhay, and Tuaregs, and the city soon became a remarkably cosmopolitan and tolerant place. Income from tariffs, and from nearby salt and gold deposits, made it rich as well. Just as in Florence at the same time, merchants in thirteenth- and fourteenth-century Timbuktu began spending their wealth on manuscripts—not the bound codices of Europe and Byzantium, but loosely gathered…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.