# POLITICS /// Current Destructions in Timbuktu: An Architectural Reading

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.

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I was sad to read online about the destruction of these mausoleums even though i’ve never visited Timbuktu and had next to no knowledge of their existence before they were being destroyed.

The event was certainly portrayed in western media as an act of ignorance or barbarity and it’s interesting to read a bit more into the context behind these shrines.

It reminded me of a passage from Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia where he describes how the anarchists, having taken hold of Cataluna, proceeded to destroy, gut, or defile as many churches as they could, but didn’t touch the Sagrada Familia on account of it being already ‘so grotesque’.

As a territorial incursion, architecture can never remain politically neutral. Structures take on the ideals of the people who built them as equally as they display their craft. And so Architecture as font of power, cultural signifier, social totem is a completely legitimate target to attack in a conflict.

But it’s in the sense of a loss of craft, history, the loss of abstract formal beauty that i mourn this destruction, being un-engaged in the religious dimensions of the conflict. These mausoleum’s became yet another architectural casualty in a human conflict that is as old as we are, yet though this conflict persists, these monuments may disappear forever. Sadness is brought on by a sense of loss.

One tangential thought – if these monuments are rebuilt by the community will they lose their authenticity? Would people mourn the destruction of a 40 year old structure as greatly as a 600 year old structure? I’m thinking here of the perenially reconstructed mosque at Djenna, but also to the difference between Eastern and Western historical sensibilities.

The attachment people have to the ‘original’ stone, or the ‘original’ detail in the West is much less relevant in the East (Japan at least) where concepts are held in higher regard than materials. Hence the buddhist temples are age old, yet they are constantly rebuilt. To me there’s something healthy about this form of relationship with our built environment, where value is understood through practical and practiced use, concepts behind buildings are revered and material ossification is avoided.


Thank you for this insightful analysis.

Santosh Thorat

As Latour says “Iconoclasm does not break an idol, but destroys a way of arguing and acting that was anathema to the iconoclast. The only one who is projecting his feelings onto the idol is he, the iconoclast with a hammer, not those who by his gesture should be freed from their shackles. The only one who ‘believes’ is he, the fighter of all beliefs. Why? because he believes in the feeling of belief, a very strange feeling indeed, on that may not exist anywhere but in the iconoclast’s mind.”

Its little enigmatic. On one side, there is a group (Rest all world which is reacting to the act of destruction) condemning the act of destruction of Timbuktu’s (Mali) Muslim mausoleums. Lets put them in iconophile category. This group which is composed of media, UNESCO, historians, archaeologists etc and many such who themselves are the product of enlightenment, hence a rational mind, who through their fact finding mechanisms, constantly are engaged in destruction of image/icon, hence are also iconoclasts. On the other hand there is this other group whose act is declared as ‘barbaric’, ‘crime against history’, ‘war crime’ for erasing the 700 year old heritage. Hence they directly become iconoclast.

Latour see’s here strong ontological and epistemological gap between these two opposing acts as they both rests on the logic of facts vs fetish which has the same root…..from where it emerged.

Léopold Lambert

Santosh ! Thank you for your comment, it’s always great to hear from you. I miss Bombay !!!

Santosh Thorat

come back…you just have to take a flight…rest all we will manage.

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