An extremist group has seized the African city of Timbuktu, systematically destroying its monuments.
The West African city of Timbuktu used to be one of Africa's richest and most important, a nexus of trade across the Sahara and a center of religious and scientific learning as far back as the 1400s. The relics of that history still stand in the form of such world heritage sites as the University of Sankore. More recently, this city in the sprawling West African country of Mali has been a tourism draw. But, on April 2, it came under new ownership: rebels from an ethnic minority known as Tuareg, who'd sought independence for years. Five days later they got it, declaring northern Mali as the independent country of Azawad. Then, on June 1, breakaway rebels with the extremist Islamist group Ansar Dine (translation: "Defenders of Faith") took control of Timbuktu.
In their first month of rule, Ansar Dine has shut down the tourism industry ("We are against tourism. They foster debauchery," a representative said), sent locals fleeing, and, over the past four days, destroyed half of the shrines that mark Timbuktu's ancient and remarkable history. The United Nations condemned the destruction and the International Criminal Court suggested it could be a war crime, but Ansar Dine insisted they won't slow down, later pulling a beautiful Gothic door off the Sidi Yahya mosque that became one of the world's great centers of learning during the 1400s. They follow an extreme form of Islam (though a relatively modern one; it emerged in late-1700s Saudi Arabia) that sees Timbuktu's shrines and mosque-universities as sacrilegious; a form of idol-worship. Their campaign is still going -- it's been compared to the Taliban's early-2001 destruction of ancient Buddha statues -- and some observers worry that many of Timbuktu's historical treasures, which have survived countless invasions and empires, won't live out the month.
Because you may never be able to be visit them yourself if you haven't already, here are the photos and stories of some of Timbuktu's most important historical sites.
A team of donkeys walks past the Djingarey Ber, the oldest mosque in Timbuktu. King Mansa Musa paid an architect 200 kilograms of gold to design it, a show of his kingdom's prestige, and it was completed in 1327. Ever since, it has been a symbol of the grandeur of the medieval Malian empire. Though Mali is today a very poor part of the world, 14th century Timbuktu was a center of wealth, trade, and education, including at mosques like this one, which doubled as learning centers. (emilio labrador/Flickr)
A Tuareg man stands in front of the Djingarey Ber mosque. Many Tuaregs, who are traditionally nomadic and tend to live in Mali's north, have long sought to secede from the south, where the capital city of Bamako sits some 600 miles away. Amazingly, Djingarey Ber is built mostly from mud-brick and wood (though there is one large limestone wall) yet has amazingly stood for almost 700 years. Its architect installed cactus-like sticks in the sides of the walls so that, every year after the seasonal rains, engineers could climb up the side to repair any damage, which they've done for centuries since. (Reuters)
The interior of the Djingarey Ber mosque, which was designed to hold 2000 worshipers at a time. The UN designated it a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1988. (Wikimedia Commons)
Locals cart goods past the Sankore mosque, which is often known as Sankore University for its remarkable history as a place for education as well as religion. Though less architecturally significant than the older Djingarey Ber, Sankore developed in the 15th and 16th centuries as one of the medieval world's great centers of learning. Students would travel here to learn history, math, and astronomy, as well as Islam, from its respected scholars. It is still in use as a mosque; a speaker, used to broadcast the daily call to prayer, juts out from its side. (emilio labrador/Flickr)
This photo shows Sankore from the opposite end of the famous, mud-brick minaret. This is the outer courtyard wall. (upyernoz/Flickr)
This is the main entrance of the Sidi Yahya mosque, which along with Sankore and Djingarey Ber make up what is sometimes called the "University of Timbuktu," the trio of medieval-era Islamic and education centers. It was built in 1400 but left empty in expectation of a holy leader, who emerged in 1441 as a man named Sidi Yahya, after which the complex was later named. (Muhamed Maznillah)
The ornately decorated front door of Sidi Yahya mosque reflects the increasing Moroccan, gothic influence on 15th century Timbuktu. (Muhamed Maznillah)
The tomb of Sidi Yahya himself, the namesake for the 15th century mosque in which he is buried. In early June, members of the extremist group Ansar Dine, which has seized Timbuktu, destroyed his tomb. They declared that the burial site made Yahya a false idol, threatening to continue their destruction of Timbuktu's historic sites. Though the UN and many others condemned Ansar Dine's act, it doesn't appear that there's anything they can do to stop them. (Muhamed Maznillah)
A U.S. museum displays a copy of a manuscript page, the original of which is in Timbuktu, hand-written by the prominent Islamic scholar Omar ibn Said. The West African's late-1800s religious writings were both an important contribution to Islamic thinking and a testament to Timbuktu's continued significance, centuries later, for Islam. Said was captured by slave-traders in 1807 and shipped to the Carolinas, where he died in 1964, a common slave age either 93 or 94. His writings are held in Timbuktu's Mama Haidara Manuscript Library. Though Ansar Dine extremists have not targeted this library, locals say they are worried about their cache of ancient Islamic manuscripts, some of which go back to the 13th century. (AP Images)
The streets in front of Sankore are usually fuller than this. But this photo was taken on April 11, a week and a half after rebels seized Timbuktu, reportedly sending many residents fleeing over fear of more fighting. (AP Images)
This building probably isn't in danger, but its story is a reminder of Timbuktu's history: Africans have long traversed the Saharan desert, typically through Timbuktu, using the strategically located city to pass goods, slaves, and knowledge between black sub-Saharan Africa and the Arab-dominated north. But the first European to cross to Timbuktu was the Scottish explorer Alexander Gordon Laing, who set out from Tripoli in July 1825 at the behest of the UK colonial secretary. He arrived over a year later, in August 1826, broke, sick, and without a right hand, which he'd lost in one of many skirmishes with marauding Tuareg. He settling into this house, where he planed to remain only three days before continuing on, but ended up staying 38, on the final of which he was murdered. (upyernoz/Flickr)
In the name of emotional well-being, college students are increasingly demanding protection from words and ideas they don’t like. Here’s why that’s disastrous for education—and mental health.
Something strange is happening at America’s colleges and universities. A movement is arising, undirected and driven largely by students, to scrub campuses clean of words, ideas, and subjects that might cause discomfort or give offense. Last December, Jeannie Suk wrote in an online article for The New Yorker about law students asking her fellow professors at Harvard not to teach rape law—or, in one case, even use the word violate (as in “that violates the law”) lest it cause students distress. In February, Laura Kipnis, a professor at Northwestern University, wrote an essay in The Chronicle of Higher Education describing a new campus politics of sexual paranoia—and was then subjected to a long investigation after students who were offended by the article and by a tweet she’d sent filed Title IX complaints against her. In June, a professor protecting himself with a pseudonym wrote an essay for Vox describing how gingerly he now has to teach. “I’m a Liberal Professor, and My Liberal Students Terrify Me,” the headline said. A number of popular comedians, including Chris Rock, have stopped performing on college campuses (see Caitlin Flanagan’s article in this month’s issue). Jerry Seinfeld and Bill Maher have publicly condemned the oversensitivity of college students, saying too many of them can’t take a joke.
As the vice president edges toward a presidential run, is he banking on further public disclosures to discredit the frontrunner?
As Joe Biden edges closer to a presidential run, there’s no shortage of theories as to what he’s up to. Former secretary of state Hillary Clinton has built a commanding lead in the national polls, giving Biden little apparent space to gain traction. Perhaps he’s counting on the early-primary state of South Carolina to provide a critical boost. He might be banking on appearing as a stronger general-election candidate than any of his potential rivals in the primary race. Maybe after spending the past 42 years of his life running for elective office, he just can’t stop.
But there’s one intriguing theory that has so far garnered little attention: What if Biden knows something about Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton that the rest of us don’t?
The drug modafinil was recently found to enhance cognition in healthy people. Should you take it to get a raise?
If you could take a pill that will make you better at your job, with few or no negative consequences, would you do it?
In a meta-analysis recently published in European Neuropsychopharmacology, researchers from the University of Oxford and Harvard Medical School concluded that a drug called modafinil, which is typically used to treat sleep disorders, is a cognitive enhancer. Essentially, it can help normal people think better.
Out of all cognitive processes, modafinil was found to improve decision-making and planning the most in the 24 studies the authors reviewed. Some of the studies also showed gains in flexible thinking, combining information, or coping with novelty. The drug didn’t seem to influence creativity either way.
In 1998, Toni Morrison wrote a comment for The New Yorker arguing that “white skin notwithstanding, this is our first black President. Blacker than any actual black person who could ever be elected in our children’s lifetime.” Last week the New York Times, implicitly cited Morrison’s piece, and claimed the author was giving Clinton “a compliment.” This interpretation of Morrison’s claim is as common as it is erroneous.
The popular interpretation of Morrison’s point (exhibited here) holds that, summoning all of her powers, the writer gazed into the very essence of Clinton, and found him sufficiently soulful. In fact, Morrison’s point had little to do with soul of any kind. She was not much concerned with Clinton’s knowledge of Ebonics, his style of handshake, nor whether he pledged Alpha or Q. Morrison was concerned with power.
It is not too late to strengthen the Iran deal, a prominent critic says.
It appears likely, as of this writing, that Barack Obama will be victorious in his fight to implement the Iran nuclear deal negotiated by his secretary of state, John Kerry. Republicans in Congress don’t appear to have the votes necessary to void the agreement, and Benjamin Netanyahu’s campaign to subvert Obama may be remembered as one of the more counterproductive and shortsighted acts of an Israeli prime minister since the rebirth of the Jewish state 67 years ago.
Things could change, of course, and the Iranian regime, which is populated in good part by extremists, fundamentalist theocrats, and supporters of terrorism, could do something monumentally stupid in the coming weeks that could force on-the-fence Democrats to side with their Republican adversaries (remember the Café Milano fiasco, anyone?). But, generally speaking, the Obama administration, and its European allies, seem to have a clearer path to implementation than they had at the beginning of the month.
A new study finds an algorithmic word analysis is flawless at determining whether a person will have a psychotic episode.
Although the language of thinking is deliberate—let me think, I have to do some thinking—the actual experience of having thoughts is often passive. Ideas pop up like dandelions; thoughts occur suddenly and escape without warning. People swim in and out of pools of thought in a way that can feel, paradoxically, mindless.
Most of the time, people don’t actively track the way one thought flows into the next. But in psychiatry, much attention is paid to such intricacies of thinking. For instance, disorganized thought, evidenced by disjointed patterns in speech, is considered a hallmark characteristic of schizophrenia. Several studies of at-risk youths have found that doctors are able to guess with impressive accuracy—the best predictive models hover around 79 percent—whether a person will develop psychosis based on tracking that person’s speech patterns in interviews.
A new study shows that the field suffers from a reproducibility problem, but the extent of the issue is still hard to nail down.
No one is entirely clear on how Brian Nosek pulled it off, including Nosek himself. Over the last three years, the psychologist from the University of Virginia persuaded some 270 of his peers to channel their free time into repeating 100 published psychological experiments to see if they could get the same results a second time around. There would be no glory, no empirical eurekas, no breaking of fresh ground. Instead, this initiative—the Reproducibility Project—would be the first big systematic attempt to answer questions that have been vexing psychologists for years, if not decades. What proportion of results in their field are reliable?
In the United States and Israel, a heated debate about whether to accept the nuclear deal with Iran continues. In the rest of the world, Iran’s reintegration is already underway.
The survival of the Iran deal seems more likely by the day; for past assessments of what that might mean for the Middle East, the United States, and beyond, please see the items grouped here.
Two weeks ago, as part of a collection of notes from readers in Israel, I quoted Samuel J. Cohen, who is originally American but has lived and worked in Israel since the 1970s, on the possibility that “Obama and Netanyahu are both right.” That is: President Obama is right that ending Iran’s pariah status will overall be good for the United States, and Prime Minister Netanyahu is right that the same change may be overall bad for Israel, even if Iran never develops a nuclear weapon. Thus the interests of the two nations genuinely diverge.
Yanis Varoufakis on Grexit, the media, and economics
When Yanis Varoufakis was elected to parliament and then named as Greek finance minister in January, he embarked on an extraordinary seven months of negotiations with the country’s creditors and its European partners.
On July 6, Greek voters backed his hardline stance in a referendum, with a resounding 62 percent voting No to the European Union’s ultimatum. On that night, he resigned, after Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, fearful of an ugly exit from the euro zone, decided to go against the popular verdict. Since then, the governing party, Syriza, has splintered and a snap election has been called. Varoufakis remains a member of parliament and a prominent voice in Greek and European politics.