In 1988, the U.N. cultural organization UNESCO named three mosques and 16 mausoleums in Timbuktu to its World Heritage list, making the city the rock of Mali’s tourism industry. Universities, international organizations, and philanthropists began pumping in millions of dollars to protect and catalog the artifacts and libraries of Timbuktu, including tombs of Muslim saints and warriors dating to the 15th century. There are, according to UNESCO, some 60 privately held libraries in Timbuktu and more than 700,000 ancient manuscripts, most of them connected to the Muslim heritage of much of West and North Africa, as well as Southern Europe. During the last 21 years, according to Cherif Keita, professor of African culture and literature at Carleton College in the United States, “Timbuktu has been undergoing something of a renaissance, really.”

All of this, we now know, is being swept away by the Islamist rebel groups that have hijacked the Tuareg rebellion in northern Mali and taken its most important population centers, including Timbuktu, in a bid to impose sharia law on all of Mali. In the last few weeks, fighters from the group Ansar Dine, which is Arabic for “Defenders of the Faith,” have begun methodically destroying ancient tombs and mosques in Timbuktu, which is said to have been the home at one time or another of 333 Muslim saints. Using rifle butts, picks, and shovels, they bashed in the entrance to the Sidi Yahia mosque, named for one of the first imams of Timbuktu. The long-sealed doorway, legend claimed, would not be opened until the last day of the world. In Gao, the city north of Timbuktu that was the former capital of the Songhai Empire, they have reportedly damaged the Tomb of Askia Muhammad, the most powerful of the Songhai emperors and a devout Muslim.

Lost City – By Peter Chilson | Foreign Policy. This makes such painful reading.