UNESCO has urged the countries neighbouring Mali, as well as Interpol, the World Customs Organization and those involved in the art market, to be vigilant over the illicit export and trafficking of cultural artefacts from the country.
“In times of turmoil, the risks of illicit trafficking of cultural objects are at the highest, with Mali’s renowned ancient manuscripts being the most vulnerable,” Director-General Irina Bokova said.
“These treasures are extremely valuable and vulnerable. We must act quickly,” she emphasized.
UNESCO has promised to do "everything possible" to preserve and rebuild Mali’s unique cultural heritage, which has been described as “a vital part of the country’s identity and history, fundamental for its future".
"Its restoration and reconstruction will give the people of Mali the strength and the confidence to rebuild national unity and look to the future,” Bokova commented.
Before they left, Islamist rebels burnt down Timbuktu's research center, the Ahmed Baba, home to over 20,000 documents, including medieval manuscripts, many of which remained unstudied. The destruction has been labeled “cultural vandalism” and a “devastating loss.”
The majority of the ancient books burnt were written in Arabic. An estimated 300,000 manuscripts are kept in private and public collections in Timbuktu, many of them date from between the 13th and 16th Centuries, and cover such subjects as religious studies, mathematics, medicine, astronomy, music, literature, poetry, and architecture.
French troops and the Malian Army were too late to save the leather-bound manuscripts from the fire, which were a record of sub-Saharan Africa's medieval history.
UNESCO has promised to help rebuild the mausoleums of Timbuktu and the tomb of Askia in Gao, and preserve the ancient manuscripts that "testify to the region’s glorious past as a major centre of Islamic learning".
Evaluation of the damage is due to be carried out in cooperation with the Government of Mali.
Djingareyber, Sankore and Sidi Yahi, Timbuktu’s three major mosques, were first inscribed on UNESCO’s World Heritage List in 1988, along with 16 mausoleums. The Askia Tomb in the city of Gao followed in 2004. After the destruction of 11 of the mausoleums and the doors of Sidi Yahi in July 2012, both sites also came to be inscribed on UNESCO’s List of World Heritage in Danger.