TROWELS in hand, on their haunches, masons in Timbuktu use traditional techniques to reconstruct precious mausoleums destroyed in an Islamist takeover of northern Mali in 2012.
Al-Qaeda-linked insurgents wrecked 16 of the fabled desert city’s shrines to Muslim saints that date back to Timbuktu’s 15th and 16th century golden age as an economic, intellectual and spiritual centre.
After a 2013 French-led military operation drove the jihadists out of the city, the UN cultural body UNESCO began the rebuilding process with the Malian government and other international organisations.
The reconstruction started last year and relies heavily on traditional building methods and cultural knowledge of the area, generating around 140 local jobs in the process.
“What’s nice is that UNESCO did not look for masons elsewhere,” said one of the workers at the reconstruction site, around 1,000 kilometres (600 miles) northeast of Mali’s capital Bamako.
“We have seen masons who were family build or rebuild these mausoleums. So we know what must be done to save our culture.”
The masons are using the local alhor stone, rice stalks, and banco—a mixture of clay and straw—to rebuild 14 of the 16 mausoleums, destroyed along with thousands of manuscripts because the Islamists considered them to be idolatrous.
The man in charge of the project, Malian engineer Mamadou Kone, said it was a challenge recreating the mausoleums, which have been designated as World Heritage monuments by UNESCO.
“Fortunately after the destruction we found out that some of the walls remained. We took samples away and that was a first source of information,” said Kone.
Additionally, the team spoke to Timbuktu historians and elders, and consulted old photographs to ensure the restored buildings truly resembled the originals.
The mausoleums were constructed to pay homage to deceased saints—regarded as great humanists, scholars and pious people of their time.
For the people of Timbuktu—the “city of 333 saints”—their destruction was an assault on Malian history and culture.
UNESCO’s Mali representative Lazare Eloundou Assomo said he hopes the reconstruction project can help with “national reconciliation” between the country’s different ethnic groups.
The rebuilding work begun with the shrines of three saints who represent different geographical regions and ethnicities—one from the Arab Kounta tribe, another from the central town of Djenne, and a third who was an Algerian.
“It’s the Mali rainbow—with a black saint, a saint who is a native of Timbuktu, and another from the Maghreb,” said Assomo.
Timbuktu’s rehabilitation project also includes the restoration of the city’s collection of renowned manuscripts.
Around 4,000 among them have been lost, stolen or burned, and 10,000 manuscripts were discovered in unsuitable storage conditions.
But 370,000 of these priceless parchments were smuggled to Bamako in 2012 to protect them from the jihadists, and archivists in Mali’s capital are painstakingly classifying and digitising them.
The entire restoration project is expected to last four years and cost $11 million (10 million euros).
So far only $3 million has been collected with the support of the World Bank, the European Union, Switzerland, and the US Agency for International Development.
Speaking of the rehabilitation of the old centre of Islamic learning, the imam of Timbuktu’s Grand Mosque, Abderrahmane Ben Essayouti, called on “the world to support the project that would bring Timbuktu back to life”.