Sunday, 3 February 2013

Timbuktu, and how fundamentalists fail history

If, like me, you love books, you will have been horrified to read, last week, that in Timbuktu in Mali, thousands of historic manuscripts had been burned by Al-Q'aida rebels.

Timbuktu manuscripts
If you have never heard of Timbuktu, it is, in effect, one of the world's oldest university towns. It was also a major trading post in trans-Saharan traffic in the middle ages. One of the major things traded, was books. Many of these are from the early Golden age of Islam, coinciding with the Andalusian Kingdom in Southern Spain. (If you don't know about the early history of Islam - and how Islamic intellectuals rescued the heritage of European classical civilisation, which eventually returned to Europe via the renaissance - it's fascinating.) This early Islam was very different to that which is preached by extremists today, so it is easy to understand why they would wish to destroy that heritage.

Fortunately, it seems that the extent of the destruction may have been massively overestimated. People in Timbuktu have kept these manuscripts safe for centuries, and during and even before the occupation removed many books for safe-keeping. Tens of thousands have been saved, although it is not known how many were damaged. Nobody knows what are in those manuscripts, which were in the process of being catalogued and copied.

Reading about this made me wonder how other heritage in the Middle East and North Africa had survived recent upheavals there. I spent a couple of hours googling, and found a mixture of good and bad news. 

Tunisia
Carthage Port. About 2400 years old.
Tunisia is full of amazing archaeological sites, including the ruins of ancient Carthage. Because the Tunisian revolution was over fairly quickly, there has not been any damage to these sites from fighting. However, Tunisia's more recent Islamic heritage has not fared so happily, suffering arson attacks by Salafists who believe the sites are idolatrous. Since the new Tunisian government is moderate Islamist, it remains to be seen whether they can crack down on these extremists.

Cairo station - still there, but with a lot more cars.
Egypt
 Egypt's most famous monuments, the pyramids, are well away from the scenes of disturbances. However, the Egypt Museum, which houses many artifacts, is right on the front line of fighting in Tahrir Square. Amazingly, the museum is intact and open, although there was one break-in which may have damaged some artefacts. Egypt also has a lot of newer heritage in need of protection, like the fabulous art deco Cairo train station. Ongoing political crises mean dealing with these issues are probably the last thing on the mind of anyone in government, but improvements in press freedom and openness makes it harder for powerful, corrupt figures to push through schemes without questions being asked.

Libya
Libya houses many ancient remains, and the good news is that these have survived the fighting more or less intact. The change of regime is almost certainly good news for the country's heritage, allowing more exploration of its archaeological heritage, which is already yielding results, and encouraging more tourists to visit. However, as in Tunisia, more recent Islamic heritage has been attacked by Salafists.

Syria
Syria houses monuments and remains from a variety of civilisations - including European fortresses built by crusaders. Sadly, destruction of historical monuments in heavy fighting in Syria has been extensive, as listed here. Since the conflict is ongoing, it is not really possible to work out what the full extent is. However, it is fairly certain that the news is not good.

I am interested to see what happens around these issues, not only because I love history, and would like to visit some of these remains, but also because I think dealing with these kind of cultural issues are often a litmus test for what kind of government a country has. All politicians, whether inspired by religion of any other ideology, love to bang on about big ideas and throw their weight around. In actual fact, the way they deal with things like protecting culture and respecting their countries' histories is probably a  tougher test of their character.

The fact that Islamist extremists see fit to burn down buildings and books shows just how much these things matter. What these things represent, is that in historical terms, Islam is a newcomer in the middle east, and that the fundamentalist variety is as foreign as the air-conditioning and Japanese pick-up trucks which Islamists see fit to drive around in.

This culture is imported, in most cases, from Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia, unlike, say, Egypt or Tunisia, had very little built heritage prior to the 20th century. What they do have is some of the holiest sites of Islam. If you think that war is the worst threats to history in the middle east, take a look at what the Saudi's have done to Mecca. Yup, they've built a hideous multi-tower high rise hotel, completely overlooking it. If anything would make you feel spiritual, it's gonna be that, isn't it, frankly?


Personally I think it would be nice if the Saudi's, who are loaded, contributed a bit more to the preservation of history across the Islamic world. I don't think that's going to happen though, since they seem too busy rewriting it.

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