Tuesday, January 29, 2013

A destruction of our shared history

Credit: World Atlas

Credit: Lonely Planet

As many of you might be aware, France is leading a coalition of forces on a nation wide offensive in the west African nation of Mali. Almost six months ago, following a military coup overthrowing then president Amadou Armadi Toure,  Al-Qaeda linked Islamists rebels Ansar-e-Dine and the Tuareg rebel group MINA took control of Northern Mali. This alliance broke down when the Ansar-e-Dine called for the imposition of Sharia law in this region.

After months of back and forth negotiations and truce between the Ansar-e-Dine and the Malian Army, including a number of UN resolutions, the Islamist rebels launched an offensive in southern Mali capturing the city of Konna, on January 10th. On Jan 11th at the behest of the Malian military regime, Frace launched operation Serval, a air and ground military intervention in Norther and Central Mali, which has been successful in pushing back the rebels (for more details see this comprehensive timeline of the conflict by France 24).

As the Islamist rebels retreat from Northern Mali, which includes the famous city of Timbuktu, it has been reported that they set fire to a historic library, housing  thousands of important manuscript collections, a literary heritage that dates back to the 15th and 16th century.

Written in  Arabic, as well as the local languages of Songhai, Tamashek and Bambara, these collections contained accounts of history and laws of the region as well as poetry and stories of North Africa. At a time when Africa as a continent was considered by European colonists as devoid of civilization, lacking literature, history and art, the discovery of these collections were instrumental in creating an African narrative and obliterating the myth of African history consisting solely of oral tradition.

As Essop Pahad, former director of the Timbuktu Manuscripts project points out:

The manuscripts gave you such a fantastic feeling of the history of this continent. They made you proud to be African. Especially in a context where you're told that Africa has no history because of colonialism and all that....The writings are so forward-looking on marriage, on trade, on all sorts of things. If the libraries are destroyed then a very important part of African and world history are gone.

There have been no further details as to the extent of the damage, but many (myself included) hope that some, if not most of the collections are preserved. If the reports on the destruction of these collections are true, then we have lost an important portion of our shared history.

In a similar vein, it should be noted that as part of the invasion of Iraq, American and Polish military presence in the ancient city of Babylon resulted in major damage to one of the oldest archaeological sites in the world. More details here.

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