UNESCO and Timbuktu

“…from here to Timbuktu”

I had planned to write about UNESCO* this week, telling you about the great variety of places and cultural artifacts this arm of the United Nations protects under its World Heritage sites program. As with many studies, way led on to way and before long I was somewhere else instead. Read on!

It is UNESCO that determines which sites are significant in our human heritage on this planet but which are also at risk of being damaged or lost if they are not protected. Many of the designated places are natural sites such as Great Barrier Reef of Australia, Komodo National Park of Indonesia, Joggins Fossil Cliffs in Nova Scotia, and Giant’s Causeway in Northern Ireland. Others are cultural sites resulting from human endeavors, such as Cahokia Mounds in Illinois, many prehistoric cave sites, Rapa Nui (Easter Island) and ancient city sites such as Aleppo and Carthage. Reading through a complete list you will see many you know well (Great Wall of China for example) and many more which you have never heard of.  But they are all unique.

The list is a great encyclopedia of all the amazing treasures we have received from nature and our predecessors.

People dance the traditional Sardana in front of the cathedral in Barcelona. Photo by Bambi L. Dingman

People dance the traditional Sardana in front of the cathedral in Barcelona.
Photo by Bambi L. Dingman

One of the unexpected (for me) categories of culture which UNESCO has isolated as worthy of protection is Intangible Cultural Heritage. This group includes folk dances, whistled languages, peculiar forms of music (see video below), unique textiles, and indigenous home construction methods. These arts are intangible and living, susceptible to loss in one or two generations. UNESCO works to catalog and support such ephemeral human treasures so that they will not disappear with the wind.

But I digress! I teased you into this article with the mention of Timbuktu. Where is this place we all know by name but have no personal knowledge of? Is it a fictional or mythological place? I used to think it might be in the Far East; one friend guessed India. Somehow it has come to symbolize the great exotic, far away but blank places in our minds. But it is real and it is a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Timbuktu is in Mali on the southern edge of the Sahara. It had a Golden Age as a center of Islamic learning and trans-desert trade about the time of the European Renaissance. Since then it has declined drastically. Wikipedia says now it is a poor city “even by Third World standards.” The recent deployment of French troops to Mali dealt with rebels who (among other things) burned an irreplaceable ancient library at Timbuktu. But the architecture of the mosque and buildings of the area remain and they are unlike anything else. Despite the constant encroachment of the Sahara, people resurface the structures to retain their iconic look.

Minaret of a traditional mosque in Mali Photo by Tiziano Casalta

Minaret of a traditional mosque in Mali
Photo by Tiziano Casalta

Timbuktu does exist although it is only a pale reflection of its former exotic glory. We can be grateful for the work of UNESCO, recognizing and lending support to help such treasures survive.

Which UNESCO World Heritage sites have you visited? Which are you looking forward to seeing?

*United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization


 Boundaries divide. Travel unites.

5 September 2013

About Travel Unites

A travel agent since 1994, I want people to get together for greater understanding across boundaries.
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