Those last three days, members of the Salafist armed group Ansar Dine destroyed seven of Timbuktu’s (Mali) Muslim mausoleums on the UNESCO world heritage list (see the Al-Jazeera reportage at the end of this article). The reading that Western medias gives of this event is very simplistic as usual (you can hear or read the words “barbarians”, “god’s madmen”, “illiterate extremists”) and I thought that it would be interesting to try to go a bit deeper in the meaning of those destructive acts.
First of all, the reaction that this news provide on many of us who live in “a safe place” is interesting. We are used to read about many human crises or murders and we managed to dissociate the information from their raw meaning (which would indubitably shock us tremendously). This recent news of the mausoleums/mosque destruction as well as the immanent danger that threatens Timbuktu’s extremely precious manuscripts, makes us -and the western world political representatives who called it a “war crime”- react in a rare epidermic way. Do we think that a six hundred years old building worth more than a human life? And, if we think that way, does that make us any less human? Things are probably more complex than that, and one might not react the same way when confronted directly to a situation than when thinking of it abstractly. Yet, something in many of us is deeply troubled when understanding the loss of extremely old and valuable buildings or documents. Is it simply the potential tourist in us that cries from being depraved from a part of the consumable beauty of the world, or does it tell us something deeper about our relationship to history and the cultural production of a civilization?
The second thing that I find interesting in these events comes from my reading of them as architect. Those mausoleums are being destroyed by iconoclast people who see in them, a form of rivalry towards God. From what I understand from the articles I read, Salafism forbids for a grave to be any less modest than a simple stone. The notion of saints (who are buried in those mausoleums) constitutes an heresy as it brings a single human closer to the status of god. Those men are therefore not destroying buildings because they despise architecture but rather, because they fathom its symbolical power and are oppressed by it. Somehow, we can say that the iconoclast understands better the icon than the iconodule -who defends the icon- and that is precisely why (s)he fight against it. Iconoclasm constitutes a continuous struggle against representation; it refuses that something acquires meaning through an external understanding or perception process which would not see a thing for what it is, bur rather, for what it implies. In this regard, the destruction of buildings or icons for iconoclastic reasons, constitutes an extremely powerful iconodule manifesto. One of the most symbolic, and therefore iconodule, act ever performed is the 2001 terrorist destruction of New York World Trade Center. Similarly, although to a much lesser extent and without human killings, the destruction of Timbuktu’s mausoleums truly reveals the icon contained in those buildings. After all, one could erroneously see the videos of this destruction as the simple act of men destroying their own houses to rebuild others afterward. Only the knowledge of what these buildings really are provokes a profound shock within us as the violence triggered by each pickaxe destructive strike provides to us a strong symbolical affect.