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.
Thicker ink, fewer smudges, and more strained hands: an Object Lesson
Recently, Bic launched acampaign to “save handwriting.” Named “Fight for Your Write,” it includes a pledge to “encourage the act of handwriting” in the pledge-taker’s home and community, and emphasizes putting more of the company’s ballpoints into classrooms.
As a teacher, I couldn’t help but wonder how anyone could think there’s a shortage. I find ballpoint pens all over the place: on classroom floors, behind desks. Dozens of castaways collect in cups on every teacher’s desk. They’re so ubiquitous that the word “ballpoint” is rarely used; they’re just “pens.” But despite its popularity, the ballpoint pen is relatively new in the history of handwriting, and its influence on popular handwriting is more complicated than the Bic campaign would imply.
Wine snobs, string quartets, and the limits of intuition
Several months ago, this author sat at a classical music concert, trying to convince himself that wine is not bullshit.
That may seem like a strange thought to have while listening to Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7 in A major. But Priceonomics had recently posted an article investigating The Price of Wine, part of which reviewed research that cast doubt on both consumers’ and wine experts’ ability to distinguish between quality wine and table wine or identify different wines and their flavors. It seemed a slippery slope to the conclusion that wine culture is nothing more than actors performing a snobbish play.
Listening to an accomplished musician while lacking any musical experience resulted in a feeling familiar to casual wine drinkers imbibing an expensive bottle: Feeling somewhat ambivalent and wondering whether you are convincing yourself that you enjoy it so as not to appear uncultured.
Dealing with misinformation, feeling powerless, and slowly getting better together
I thought the article would validate my husband’s experience. That’s why I emailed him the link to the decade-old New York magazine article about his alma mater, the American Boychoir School for vocal prodigies, where alumni from as late as the 1990s estimate that one in five boys were molested. Boys like Travis.
“It used to feel like an isolated incident that affected just me," Trav said.
It was the end of my workday on an October afternoon; I had just set my keys on the kitchen table. My coat was still buttoned.
“Now I know I spent nearly three years of my childhood at a boarding school not just with random pedophiles, but in a culture that allowed it.”
As his wife, how do I respond? That he survived? That he’s brave? That he’s a hero for letting me talk about it? That I will stand beside him with a personal mission and public vow that nobody will ever hurt him, physically or emotionally, again, the way they did during his 30 months as a choirboy from 1988 to 1990?.
The new drama series, which follows the Colombian kingpin’s rise to power, feels more like a well-researched documentary than the gripping saga it wants to be.
Netflix’s new series Narcos is possibly arriving at the wrong time: The doldrums of summer aren’t really the ideal moment for a narratively dense, documentary-like look at the rise and fall of the Colombian drug kingpin Pablo Escobar. Narrated in voiceover by DEA Agent Steve Murphy (Boyd Holbrook), the early hours of Narcos feel like a history lesson, though an visually sumptuous one.
As Netflix continues to expand its streaming empire, it’s making a concerted effort to appeal to worldwide audiences, and Narcos fits neatly into that plan, alongside last year’s expensive critical flop Marco Polo. Narcos was shot on location in Colombia and stars the acclaimed Brazilian actor Wagner Moura as Escobar. It takes full advantage of its setting, loaded with sweeping helicopter shots of the Colombian jungle where Escobar founded his cocaine empire, filling a power vacuum left by various political upheavals in late-’70s South America.
Nervous Democrats are looking for alternatives as Hillary Clinton falters. But is the VP the right person for the job?
“I think panic is the operative mode for the Democratic Party,” David Axelrod, who has been on the receiving end of panic mode many times over the years, told me this week. I had asked Obama’s political guru how bad the current panic was for Hillary Clinton—bad enough for the party to seek an alternative? Bad enough, perhaps, to create an opening for Joe Biden?
Axelrod didn’t think so. “I think it’s indisputable she’s had a rocky few months,” he said. “But if you look at her support among Democrats, and the resources she brings, she’s still very strong—I think she’s going to be the nominee.”
Not everyone is so sure. Public opinion has turned starkly negative on Clinton in recent months, as she has struggled to put the scandal over her use of email as secretary of state to rest. In a poll released this week, the word most commonly summoned when people were asked about her was “liar.”
The Islamic State is no mere collection of psychopaths. It is a religious group with carefully considered beliefs, among them that it is a key agent of the coming apocalypse. Here’s what that means for its strategy—and for how to stop it.
What is the Islamic State?
Where did it come from, and what are its intentions? The simplicity of these questions can be deceiving, and few Western leaders seem to know the answers. In December, The New York Times published confidential comments by Major General Michael K. Nagata, the Special Operations commander for the United States in the Middle East, admitting that he had hardly begun figuring out the Islamic State’s appeal. “We have not defeated the idea,” he said. “We do not even understand the idea.” In the past year, President Obama has referred to the Islamic State, variously, as “not Islamic” and as al-Qaeda’s “jayvee team,” statements that reflected confusion about the group, and may have contributed to significant strategic errors.
On the desperation behind the migrant tragedy in Austria
On Thursday, as Krishnadev Calamur has been tracking in The Atlantic’s new Notes section, Austrian authorities made a ghastly discovery: a truck abandoned in the emergency lane of a highway near the Hungarian border, packed with the decomposing bodies of 59 men, eight women, and four children. They are thoughtto be the corpses of migrants who suffocated to death, perhaps two days earlier, in the bowels of a vehicle whose back door was locked shut and refrigeration and ventilation systems weren’t functional. Stray identity documents suggest that at least some of the victims were Syrian—refugees from that country’s brutal civil war. The truck featured an image of a chicken and a slogan from the Slovakian poultry company that the lorry once belonged to: “I taste so good because they feed me so well.”
What the Iran “debate” has taught us about our ability to discuss world affairs
Over the past month I’ve run a series of messages from readers in North America, the Middle East, Europe, and elsewhere about the JCPOA Iran-nuclear deal that the Congress will soon formally consider. You can see the latest item here, and the whole collection here. That most recent installment, from Samuel J. Cohen in Israel, emphasized the contrast between the fury over the deal in the United States and Israel, and its taken-for-granted treatment everywhere else.
Here is another reaction worth considering. It is about the way the debate has evolved inside the United States. This comes from a young American who works for a well-known international organization and who himself has experience overseas. He writes:
Bruce Springsteen’s breakout album embodied the lost ‘70s—the tense, political, working-class rejection of an increasingly unequal society.
Forty years ago, on the eve of its official release, “Born to Run”—the song that propelled Bruce Springsteen into the rock-and-roll stratosphere—had already attracted a small cult following in the American rust belt.
At the time, Springsteen desperately needed a break. Despite vigorous promotion by Columbia Records, his first two albums, Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J. and The Wild, The Innocent, and the E Street Shuffle, had been commercial flops. Though his band spent virtually every waking hour either in the recording studio or on tour, their road earnings were barely enough to live on.
Sensing the need for a smash, in late 1974 Mike Appel, Bruce’s manager, distributed a rough cut of “Born to Run” to select disc jockeys. Within weeks, it became an underground hit. Young people flooded record stores seeking copies of the new single, which didn’t yet exist, and radio stations that hadn’t been on Appel’s small distribution list bombarded him with requests for the new album, which also didn’t exist. In Philadelphia, demand for the title track was so strong that WFIL, the city’s top-40 AM station, aired it multiple times each day. In working-class Cleveland, the DJ Kid Leo played the song religiously at 5:55 p.m. each Friday afternoon on WMMS, to “officially launch the weekend.” Set against the E Street Band’s energetic blend of horns, keyboards, guitars, and percussion, “Born to Run” was a rollicking ballad of escape, packed full of cultural references that working-class listeners recognized immediately.