The Caliph wrote: “If those books are in agreement with the Koran, we have no need of them; and if these are opposed to the Koran, destroy them.”
After receiving the reply Amr began dismantling the library. At his orders, the books were distributed among the public baths of Alexandria. Thus in a period of complete six months all the books were burnt and destroyed.
– Bar Hebraeus, Chronicum Syriacum (A 13th century history)
I was heartbroken this morning when I heard that Timbuktu is at this moment being systematically destroyed by a rebel faction adhering to an extremist sect of Islam. A 14th-century Mosque, shrines, tombs artwork, monuments and (most importantly, to me) countless hand-copied manuscripts have been consigned to oblivion. Gone forever. This is a great loss to human heritage and African history; during the height of the Mali Empire, Timbuktu was one of the wealthiest cities in the known world and a major centre of Islamic scholarship. Historians and local scholars have appealed to the International Community to do all in their power to preserve whatever might remain, but it might already be too late.
We have seen such wholesale attempts to deliberately wipe out stretches of the past. The circumstances are shockingly similar to the burning of the Library of Alexandria in terms of the sheer amount of manuscripts at risk. The elimination of Mayan Codices, the looting and destruction of Incan and Aztec cities, suppression and elimination of Native American cultural artefacts and languages under colonial rule, the stripping of Roman Catholic monasteries and churches during the Reformation, the list goes on. However, it’s shocking (and sobering) to think that such actions still continue into the 21st century, though after the horrors of the second World War and the rise of ideological thinking, I should not have been quite so surprised.
The extremists’ rationale behind the razing of Timbuktu is that the various historical items are objects for idolatry. However, I believe the underlying reason for such actions have little to do with Islam and instead represent a fear of the past. Throughout the course of Islamic history, scholars and theologians within the Muslim world debated interpretations of the Koran. Wahhabism and similar sects would wipe out evidence that other interpretations exist. Under current circumstances, this dream is well nigh impossible, as much of the historical data has been digitized, photographed, printed and re-printed.
And that is what makes this event so disgusting: the sheer uselessness of the gesture.
Totalizing ideologies, whether political or religious, all represent themselves as “the End of History” and declare the past as irrelevant—yet oddly, actively try to destroy that “irrelevant” history.
An important historical site is being wiped out. There is little we can do except watch, and mourn.