The director general of Unesco, Irina Bokova, called the reconstruction “an answer to all extremists whose echo can be heard well beyond the borders of Mali”.
The tombs, treasures of Timbuktu, date back to the 13th century in some cases. The saints were renowned for their scholarship as well as their piety, and their memorials formed part of the Timbuktu World Heritage Site, the Unesco list of the world’s most important monuments. In 2012, 14 were destroyed, leaving heaps of broken stone and mud, apparently a deliberate response by the Islamic radicals, days after Unesco placed the tombs on the “at risk” register.
Local masons were used to rebuild, using traditional building techniques, collecting old photographs and surviving fragments of the walls as patterns to rebuild using the local stone mortared with banco, a mixture of clay and straw. The first monuments chosen for restoration were to three saints from different regions, one from Timbuktu, one from Algeria, and one from Djenné in the Niger delta.
Bokova called their work “a lesson in tolerance, dialogue and peace”. She said: “Your endeavour to safeguard essential elements of your history is proof of Mali’s recovery, rallying and regained confidence.”
“We celebrate a day that turns a page in our dark history. The reconstruction of these mausoleums helps us forget those moments of desolation,” said the mayor of Timbuktu, Halle Ousmane.
The reconstruction of the tombs, which were formally reopened over the weekend, cost $500,000 and was made possible thanks to a programme put in place by UNESCO with the support of the European Union, Switzerland, Norway, France and the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA).Work continues on other ravaged sites in the city.