These 600-Year Old World Heritage Sites Might Be Rubble by August

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)