June 30 (Reuters) - Armed fighters of Mail's al Qaeda-linked Ansar Dine Islamist group on Saturday destroyed mausoleums of saints in the ancient trading city of Timbuktu, classified as a UNESCO World Heritage site, witnesses said.
Ansar Dine, which experts say has links to local al Qaeda factions, has gained the upper hand over its erstwhile rebel allies, the secular MNLA group, since the two routed government forces and seized control of Mali's desert north in April.
Timbuktu has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1988, but tourism has suffered from years of security problems. Gunmen seized three foreigners and killed a fourth on a street in Timbuktu last November. Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) claimed responsibility.
Ansar Dine, which wants to impose sharia, Islamic law, across all of Mali, says Timbuktu's famed shrines to local saints are un-Islamic.
Here is a look at what remains in the ancient city:
- Home of the prestigious Koranic Sankore University and other madrasas, Timbuktu was an intellectual and spiritual capital and a centre for the propagation of Islam throughout Africa in the 15th and 16th centuries.
- Its three great mosques - Djingareyber, Sankore and Sidi Yahia - are from that time. Although continuously restored, these monuments are under threat from desertification.
- The Mosque of Djingareyber was built by Sultan Kankan Moussa after his return in 1325 from a pilgrimage to Mecca. Between 1570 and 1583 the Qadi of Timbuktu, Imam Al Aqib, had it reconstructed and enlarged, adding the whole southern part and the wall enclosing the graveyard situated to the west.
- The central minaret dominates the town and is the town's most visible landmark. A smaller minaret on the eastern facade completes the profile of the mosque which has three inner courtyards.
- Like Djingareyber, the Mosque of Sankore, built during the Mandingue period, was restored by the Imam Al Aqib between 1578 and 1582. He had the sanctuary demolished and rebuilt according to the measurements of the Kaaba at Mecca, which he had taken with a rope during his pilgrimage. The Mosque of Sidi Yahia, south of Sankore, is believed to have been built around 1400.
- Apart from the mosques, the World Heritage Site comprises 16 cemeteries and mausoleums, essential elements in a religious system as, according to popular belief, they constitute a rampart that shields the city from all misfortune.
- Timbuktu's manuscripts offer an unparalleled window into societies and intellectual traditions from the late 15th century onward, but for decades they have been largely inaccessible. - This vast legacy is on the verge of being lost due to brittleness, damage by termites, insects and the weather as well as illegal sales, mostly to foreigners.
- Many are written in local vernaculars, some are in archaic forms of the present-day languages of Songhai, Tamasheq and Fulfulde. The Timbuktu foundation says there are about 700,000 documents. Some record complex genealogies and scientific theories, as well as intellectual arguments between scholars, teachers and commentators.
- During the past two centuries, most of the manuscripts have been concealed, often buried or hidden to safeguard them from colonial agents, lawlessness and political instability. Today, the manuscripts are mostly in the hands of local libraries and private owners, but since April they have been increasingly hidden away for safety.
Sources: Reuters, https://archnet.org/, http://whc.unesco.org/, http://timbuktufoundation.org/manuscripts.htm/, www.aluka.org (Reporting by David Cutler, London Editorial Reference Unit) (Editing by Alessandra Rizzo)