So apparently the priceless manuscript heritage of the Sahel, preserved over the best part of a millenium in Timbuktu has been incinerated by the Malian rebels. This is both a tragedy for the region, another example of the wild intolerance of the Salifis towards , well, anything that reeks of “other”, and a crime against culture. While not torching the past the flowers of islam destroyed the tombs of Sufi saints, some also cultural treasures. It is one of the greatest ways to sow despair amongst your enemies, to destroy their heritage and make them rootless in the present by destroying the past. Of course this isnt new. The destruction of the Buddhas of Bamiam made headlines, and as we speak the Saudi government is engaging in monumental building works right in the heart of historic mecca.
But, its not just maniacal jihadists with unkempt facial hair in far away regions that do this sort of thing. Europeans and Americans are pretty good at it also. A hundred years ago the German army burned the library of the university of Louvain, with a loss of incalculable proportions to europes medieval heriatage. The german bibliopyranic tendencies came again in WW2 when among other the library of the university of naples and Metz. A list of libraries and archives lost in the 20th century is here and it makes heartbreaking reading.
The Americans cheerfully bombed the hell out of Pisa, damaging the Campo Dei Miracoli including the destruction of the frescos of the Campo Santo. They followed that up with the destruction of Monte Cassino; the grandsons of the pilots probably were some of the people who watched slack jawed as “stuff happens” and the priceless collections of the Iraqi museum were looted (while making sure that the oil and gas charts in the museum of petroleum were preserved). the destruction of the built and intellectual heritage of Bosnia was a war crime no less than the mass rapes and starvations.
And of course then we have our own fair land – anyone wanting to weep should read the two magnificent books Abandoned Mansions of Ireland (2 vols) and Lost Houses of Ireland and read how many were torched, usually for local petty unmilitary generational revenge reasons, by the IRA in the 1920s. To cap it all we saw the birth of the state on the pyre of history as the four courts burned. Mined by one side, shelled by another, the loss of documents all but obliterated the medieval and early modern records. Well done.
So, lets pursue and punish the gibbering fanatics who torched the libraries in Mali. But lets not be too proud – our grandads did the same and guess what? Our grandkids will do likewise.