Cultural heritage at risk: Mali

Djingareyber Mosque, built 1327, Timbuktu, Mali. Two tombs at this mosque were attacked by Islamic extremists in 2012. (photo: Johannes Zielcke, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Djingareyber Mosque, built 1327, Timbuktu, Mali. Two tombs at this mosque were attacked by Islamic extremists in 2012. (photo: Johannes Zielcke, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Internal conflict has had a disastrous impact on Mali’s rich archaeological heritage in recent years. In 2012, Tuareg and Islamic separatists took over northern Mali, destroying crucial works of Malian heritage (AllAfrica). The historic sites of Timbuktu, Gao, and Kidal all experienced extensive damage.

According to UNESCO, “Fifteen of Timbuktu’s mausoleums were destroyed, including nine that are part of the World Heritage sites. We estimate that about 4,200 manuscripts from the Ahmed Baba research centre were burned, and that another 300,000 in the Timbuktu region are vulnerable to illicit trafficking.”

The devastating impact of conflict and civil strife on internal heritage is clear in this instance and further underlines the need to work together to help Mali protect its heritage.

What is at stake for Mali?

The numerous great civilizations of Mali have left behind a rich archaeological record spanning from the Neolithic period to the 18th century. The Niger River Valley hosted a crossroads for culture and commerce based around the trans-Saharan trade, which exchanged gold, ivory, salt, and slaves for products from the Mediterranean and Middle East. Cities such as Gao and Timbuktu rose as great centers of commerce and learning during the medieval period, boasting splendid mosques and Islamic architecture as well as the tomb complex of the emperor Askia Mohamed. Bamako became an important commercial center later in the 17th century. Settlement at Djenné-Jeno, an important trading center, covered more than 16 centuries. Occupation here has left behind an archaeological mound over five meters thick, which has provided valuable information on the emergence of trade and social complexity at this site.

Unfortunately these rich cultural resources have proven too great a temptation for looters.  Mali has suffered from looting since early colonial officials collected artifacts as souvenirs, but the problem became truly serious starting in the 1970s when a series of droughts drove poor farmers to seek other sources of income. These droughts happened to coincide with the discovery of terracotta figurines at Djenné (Sanogo, Sidibé 1995).   Looting activity increased significantly after this point, so that now estimates place the number of sites looted in the Niger River Valley at between 80 and 90%. The plundering varies from individuals collecting random artifacts exposed at the surface to the mass destruction of entire sites by groups of laborers digging holes and trenches. The archaeological mounds at Kané Boro, Hamma Djam, and Natamatao have all been ransacked by looters who destroyed the sites with trenches and shafts.

Meanwhile, the international antiquities market has taken a keen interest in objects from Mali. Zoomorphic statuettes in terracotta, beads, copper vessels and jewelry, and iron figurines are among some of the items sold regularly in auction houses, at dealer’s galleries, and even online. Thanks to looting, the number of objects flooding the market is large, while our knowledge of Mali’s ancient heritage remains extremely limited.

What Mali is doing to protect its cultural heritage

In response to the widespread damage caused by looting, the government of Mali took action to protect its cultural patrimony with a series of laws and decrees passed between 1985 and 1987. These statutes aim to protect and promote the cultural heritage of Mali, regulate excavations, and control the export and commercialization of cultural property. Included in these laws is a provision which states artifacts leaving the country must be accompanied by an export license from the Cultural Heritage Services at the National Museum in Bamako. Mali also ratified the 1970 UNESCO Convention in 1987, showing its support in regulating the traffic of illicit artifacts worldwide. In addition to this legislation, the government of Mali has striven to educate its officials and the general public, raising awareness of the looting problem.

Programs focused at the local level have utilized radio, television, meetings, traveling exhibitions, and even staged plays to get the message across and encourage involvement (Sidibé 2001). Cultural missions were established at Djenné, Bandiagara, and Timbuktu in 1993. In some areas, the success of these efforts has turned would-be looters into custodians of cultural heritage—villagers are founding museums and working to protect and preserve Mali’s archaeological treasures in the Mopti region and near Djenné-Jeno (Sidibé, 2001). On a larger scale, the National Museum of Mali at Bamako has made outstanding efforts to protect cultural property and to advance an understanding of history—not just for Mali, but for Africa as a whole.

Just last year the museum was presented with the Prince Claus Fund Award for promoting cultural heritage and cultural exchange. The country also participated in workshops organized by the International Council of Museums (ICOM) in Arusha, Bamako, and Kinshasa. Museum professionals, law enforcement officers, customs officials, archaeologists, and other professionals all collaborated at these workshops in order to reach a better understanding between countries of import and export.

What other countries do to aid Mali’s cause

Mali’s internal efforts demonstrate that the country has taken positive action to protect its cultural patrimony, but unfortunately it is not enough to stem the tide of looting and the illicit trade. Although the country has taken great initiative in the battle against looting, as a developing nation, Mali has limited resources for the protection of archaeological sites and the policing of its borders (McIntosh, 1995). Even so, the nation dedicates an admirable portion of its meager budget towards these efforts. So long as there is an international demand for Malian artifacts, there will be a need for international cooperation to combat looting.

Thankfully, other countries are collaborating with Mali to show their commitment to preserving the world’s cultural heritage. In 2005 Norway launched a UNESCO Funds-in-Trust project to aid the countries of Mali, Ethiopia, and Senegal. This project aims to preserve and document archaeological collections and archaeological sites, raise awareness of the looting crisis, and educate local officials and the public. ICOM, whose members include institutions from across the globe, has drafted a “red list” for Mali of categories of artifacts that are most affected by looting. ICOM appeals to museums, collectors, dealers, and auction houses not to buy these objects and provides information on the legislation protecting them. Preventive measures such as these attempt to decrease the overseas demand for stolen artifacts, and they are helpful and necessary. In January of 2007, French customs officials seized more than 650 artifacts from Mali being smuggled through the Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris. These objects were presumably on their way to the U.S., where they would be sold to dealers and private collectors. Such instances demonstrate the need for U.S. cooperation to combat the looting problem. Thankfully, the MoU between the United States and Mali was renewed in 2012.

How does Mali continue to share its culture without endangering its resources?

These endeavors show that restricting the illicit trade of artifacts does not prevent cultural exchange between nations. On the contrary, it has led to international collaboration and new efforts to educate and spread culture between nations. The traveling exhibition “Vallée du Niger” opened in Paris in 1993 and visited numerous African countries. In 2003, the Smithsonian Festival of Folklife put on an immense exposition of Mali’s culture featuring music, dancing, food, films, arts, and even the appearance of Amadou Toumani Toure, president of Mali. Numerous universities throughout the United States also boast study abroad programs in Mali, including Harvard, Michigan State, Drew University, and Antioch College. Examples such as these show that Mali’s cultural heritage can be part of the world’s cultural heritage through positive forms of exchange.

Cite this page as: SAFE (Saving Antiquities for Everyone), "Cultural heritage at risk: Mali," in Smarthistory, January 12, 2018, accessed May 18, 2024,