thu 20/10/2016

theartsdesk in Mali: Creation, Conservation and Restoration | Features reviews, news & interviews

theartsdesk in Mali: Creation, Conservation and Restoration

The battle to bring Mali's architectural and religious history into the digital age

Morning breaks over the Djenne mosque in Mali Mosque photos and Mopti sunset by David Nice

Timbuktu, the legendary "End of the World", does actually exist, and as everyone now knows, it's in Mali. It has just been thrust into the world’s focus after its recent liberation from the Al Qaeda-linked extremists who have occupied the north of Mali during the last 10 months. 

Timbuktu’s ancient mosques are protected by their UNESCO World Heritage status. It is the "city of the 300 saints", which is one detail that did not please its recent jihadist occupiers who did not agree with the worship of saints as practised by Timbuktu's population. Many of the town’s mausoleums were therefore destroyed. In addition, as a final flourish the jihadists set light to the ancient Arabic manuscripts which had been stored at the Ahmed Baba Institute, a state establishment for the preservation of Malian manuscripts.

Irina Bukova, the UNESCO cultural envoy, accompanied France's President Hollande on his triumphant entry into Timbuktu on 2 February, after French troops had liberated the town (Timbuktu's Sankore mosque, pictured right). The pair carried out an inspection of what had been destroyed and Mme Bukova vowed to come up with funding for the rehabilitation of the town, since announced as €5m.

This is all very commendable, of course. The people of Timbuktu suffered grievously under the Islamist occupation and need every encouragement. However, as an expat living in Djenne, Mali where I have a hotel (, I confess to a somewhat jaundiced view of how such overseas funding might be spent.

Firstly, the mausoleums which UNESCO will reconstruct:  about 80 per cent of these are made of sun-dried mud brick which is then plastered with mud. Some are built with the characteristic Timbuktu stone. But in both cases, I do hope that UNESCO will let the people of Timbuktu reconstruct these mausoleums themselves. The cost of rebuilding a traditional mausoleum in local material and using local masons is negligible. But more importantly, it is surely the pride of the city and something the people would like to do themselves? I fear that UNESCO will be sending in "experts" in 4x4s.

There is a museum in Djenne which was built a few years ago with European Community money. This museum has still not opened and has no exhibits. This is a scandal, and the reasons why it is still not open remain shrouded in mystery. Designed by a Bamako architect, it was built with mud in the traditional Djenne style and is a very handsome building. The masons of Djenne were employed as "advisers" or as labourers. Why? Because they cannot read and they cannot find their way through the labyrinth of bureaucracy which has to be conquered before being employed by the European Community. The fact that they and their ancestors were the very ones that invented this building style seems to hold no importance (the Djenne Manuscript Library, pictured above).

Mali's historic manuscripts, overleaf

As a final flourish the jihadists set light to the ancient Arabic manuscripts which had been stored at the Ahmed Baba Institute

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