Monday,24 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1133, 31 Jan - 6 Feb 2013
Monday,24 September, 2018
Issue 1133, 31 Jan - 6 Feb 2013

Ahram Weekly

The mask and the kanaga

As the conflict in Mali intensifies, it is not just the country’s traditional mausoleums and ancient manuscript collections that may be under threat of loss or destruction, writes David Tresilian

Northern Mali
Northern Mali
Al-Ahram Weekly

The publication of a further appeal for the protection of Mali’s cultural heritage by UNESCO, the UN’s cultural agency, on 14 January has drawn renewed attention to the threat that the armed conflict in the country now represents for its cultural heritage.
In her appeal to the international community and to the French and other armed forces operating in the country, the organisation’s director-general, Irina Bokova, called on “all armed forces to make every effort to protect the cultural heritage of the country, which has already been severely damaged.”
As reported in the Weekly on 17 January, such threats include not only the reported intention of the Islamist Ansar Dine rebels in the north of the country to destroy the region’s traditional mausoleums, believing them to be un-Islamic, but also the possibility that tens of thousands of ancient manuscripts kept in private libraries could be damaged, looted, or smuggled abroad.
The danger facing northern Mali’s traditional mausoleums, many of them located in the cities of Timbuktu and Gao which are occupied by Ansar Dine rebels, first came to international attention in June last year, with reports that many of them had been deliberately destroyed. Associated with local folk beliefs or non-orthodox understandings of Islam, the mausoleums were targeted by Islamist rebels wanting to impose their views on local populations in many cases apparently against the wishes of the populations concerned.
According to one rebel spokesman quoted by the BBC in July last year, the Ansar Dine rebels intended to destroy all the mausoleums, presumably including that of the 16th-century Songhai emperor Askia Mohamed in Gao, a UNESCO world heritage site, on the grounds that they could be idolatrous. It is understood that the destruction is continuing, and UNESCO has placed the ancient city of Timbuktu, which enjoys international protection as a heritage site, on its list of properties in danger of destruction.
While the Islamist rebels have thus far stated their intention of protecting the region’s ancient manuscripts, as revealed in Ayman el-Sisi’s report from Timbuktu in the Weekly last week, international observers remain concerned about the survival of the manuscript collections, which are often uncatalogued and kept in sub-optimal conditions. Even if the collections are not deliberately targeted by the rebels, the armed conflict in the country raises the risk of their being damaged by bombing, looted, or smuggled abroad.
However, it is not just northern Mali’s traditional mausoleums and ancient manuscript collections that could be lost or damaged as a result of the conflict in the country. In its appeal to the international community to help safeguard the country’s cultural heritage, UNESCO, acting in association with the Malian government in the capital Bamako, has also drawn attention to other heritage elements that may thus far have been passed over by the international media.
Naturally, the risk to the mosques, madrassas and mausoleums of Timbuktu, remarkable examples of the traditional earth architecture of the region, has attracted particular attention, as has the risk to the mausoleum of Askia Mohamed in Gao, built in the early 16th century and now believed to be in danger of destruction. However, two further UNESCO world heritage sites in Mali could also be at risk of damage as a result of the conflict in the country.
These sites, the Old Towns of Djenné and the Cliff of Bandiagara – Land of the Dogon, are among the most important cultural sites in West Africa. Damage to them as a result of the present conflict would constitute a major loss for humanity as a whole.
The mosques and mausoleums of Timbuktu: The city of Timbuktu, today in northern Mali, was a centre for the propagation of Islam throughout West Africa in the 15th and 16th centuries, and the city’s three great mosques of Djingareyber, Sankore and Sidi Yahia recall this period in its history.
The Djingareyber Mosque was built by the Malian sultan Kankan Moussa after his return from a pilgrimage to Mecca in 1325 CE and later reconstructed and enlarged between 1570 and 1583 by the Qadi of Timbuktu, Imam al-Aqib. Its main minaret still dominates the city today, with a smaller minaret on the eastern façade completing the Mosque’s external profile. Inside, the Mosque is arranged around three inner courtyards.
The Sankore Mosque, built in the 14th century, was also restored by the Imam al-Aqib between 1578 and 1582, the dimensions of the inner sanctuary being rebuilt according to measurements that al-Aqib had apparently taken of the kaaba at Mecca during a pilgrimage to the latter city. The Sidi Yahia Mosque is said to have been built around 1400 by sheikh al-Moktar Hamalla in honour of the holy man whose name it bears, and it was also restored in 1577-78 by the Imam al-Aqib.
Apart from these three great mosques, 16 cemeteries and mausoleums have also been listed by UNESCO as parts of the world heritage site at Timbuktu. These include the mausoleum of sheikh Abul Kassim Attouaty, who died in 1529 CE, and the mausoleums of Sidi Mahmoudou, who died in 1547, and Qadi al-Aqfb, who died in 1583.
Both the mosques and the mausoleums are built using the traditional earth architecture of the region, in which mud bricks faced with mud plaster are used, typically with scaffolding timbers also projecting from the facades. The renewal of the mud plastering each year gives the buildings their characteristic rounded shapes, with the timber scaffolding lending them a dramatic spiky profile.
According to reports coming out of Mali last year, the mausoleums of Sidi Mahmoudou, Sidi Mokhtar and Alpha Moya, listed as part of the heritage site of Timbuktu, were destroyed by Ansar Dine rebels in June. In December, further reports indicated that at least three others had also been destroyed, including those of Al-Hassan and of the Al-Houseyni twins.
In the neighbouring city of Gao, also occupied by the Ansar Dine rebels, it is the dramatic 17-metre-high pyramidal structure of the mausoleum of the Songhai emperor Askia Mohamed that has received international protection as a world heritage site. Built in 1529, the mausoleum complex contains the emperor’s pyramidal tomb, two flat-roofed mosque buildings, a cemetery and an open-air assembly ground.  
According to UNESCO, it is “the most important and best conserved vestige of the powerful and rich Songhai Empire that extended through West Africa in the 15th and 16th centuries,” and “a magnificent example of how local traditions adapted to the exigences of Islam in creating an architectural structure unique across the West African Sahel.”
Djenné and the Land of the Dogon: Some of the fiercest fighting in the present conflict in Mali has been around the town of Mopti 460 km northeast of the Malian capital Bamako at the confluence of the Niger and Bani rivers.
It was apparently rebel attempts to take control of Mopti, believed to be the northernmost town still controlled by the government, that led to the French intervention earlier this month to halt the rebel advance. However, a glance at a map of Mali also reveals that Mopti is close not only to the de facto border between northern and southern Mali, but that it is also close to the two other major heritage sites in the country, the Old Towns of Djenné and the Cliff of Bandiagara – Land of the Dogon, both of which may now be at risk of damage as a result of the conflict.
The first of these, the Old Towns of Djenné, consists of a set of 15th-16th century settlements built on hillocks as protection from seasonal floods that still boast some 2,000 traditional mud-brick houses, along with mosques, madrassas and other public buildings. The city of Djenné itself flourished between the 15th and 16th centuries along with the more northerly cities of Gao and Timbuktu. Because of its traditional architecture and still comparatively unspoiled aspect, it has been described as “the most beautiful city in Africa” and a particularly important example of Islamic architecture and urban-planning in a West African context.
Though continuously inhabited from perhaps 250 BCE, the settlements at Djenné today reflect the history of the Muslim Malian and Songhai Empires in this part of West Africa, as do the neighbouring sites of Gao and Timbuktu. Yet, only some 60 km or so to the east lies the Dogon Plateau, one of the best-known and most important surviving representatives of the region’s traditional religion and culture.
–Dogon masks, sculpture and sacred objects subsequently became among the best-known and most-sought-after examples of traditional African culture abroad, with the Dogon kanaga, a double cross-like motif found on traditional Dogon masks and head-dresses and believed to represent the relationship between the forces of the earth and those of the sky, being adopted by the influential review Présence africaine as a mark of African identity and cultural heritage.
The land of the Dogon, listed by UNESCO as a world heritage site, consists of a landscape of cliffs and sandy plateaux with characteristic architectural elements consisting of houses, granaries, sanctuaries and togu-na, or low-cast communal meeting-places. Age-old religious and cultural traditions continue to live in the region, including ceremonies and rituals employing traditional masks and involving the honouring of ancestors.
Some of these traditions, performed in happier times to visiting tourists, made the Dogon villages one of the most-important destinations for visitors to West Africa, though here as elsewhere the success of such events with tour-operators raised concerns about the debasement of traditional religious practices.
Dogon villages, dramatically placed beneath the towering escarpment of the Bandiagara cliff, typically comprise square granaries with thatched, tapering roofs, along with two-level family houses decorated with sculptured motifs. The large togu-na communal meeting places are believed to have long functioned as places for debate and decision-making, their characteristic low roofs made of branches being supported by sculptured wooden poles.

Arms up to the sky: Dogon totemic sanctuaries in which sculptures representing the ancestors were kept can take the form of caves or niches or specially built houses. These sculptures, the oldest of which are now prized objects on international art markets, have long been among the mostly widely recognised forms of traditional African sculpture, with sculptures made by the Djennenké or Tellem peoples of the region between the 10th and the 16th centuries, their arms raised up to the sky as if seeking to touch the heavens, being instantly recognisable as traditional sculptures of the Dogon.
Ever since the French anthropologist Marcel Griaule studied the Dogon in the 1930s, reconstructing Dogon cosmology through conversations with Dogon elders, notably one elder named Ogotemmeli that Griaule subsequently immortalised in his Dieu d’eau, entretiens avec Ogotemmeli (Conversations with Ogotemmeli), Dogon culture has been perhaps particularly familiar in France, with the Musée du quai Branly in Paris staging a major exhibition on aspects of the Dogon in 2011.
This exhibition, probably one of the best that this still comparatively new museum has yet put on, will have come as a revelation to many visitors. Not only had the organisers, led by curator Hélène Leloup, herself the author of a standard work on Dogon statuary, managed to gather together hundreds of Dogon statues, arranging them by date, type and sub-region, but the story of the encounter between the Dogon culture and French anthropology exemplified in the conversations between Griaule and Ogotemmeli is surely one of the most intriguing episodes in the history of western anthropology.
While less well-known, and Griaule’s Entretiens avec Ogotemmeli has scarcely achieved the fame of the contemporaneous Tristes tropiques, it is an episode that is of similar importance to the studies carried out by the French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss of the indigenous peoples of Brazil at much the same time.

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