Women walking near a 15th century mosque hacked to pieces by jihadists in 2012, and restored to its former glory. The mausoleums are the tombs of revered Muslim sages, known as saints in Timbuktu, a city listed as a Unesco World Heritage site, then put on its List of World Heritage in Danger in 2012..Picture: Sebastein Rieussec /AFP
The shrines of Muslim saints in Timbuktu, northern Mali, are believed to protect the fabled city from danger, but were destroyed by radical Islamists in 2012.

Five years later, the Timbuktu mausoleums have been restored through work carried out by craftsmen, with help from the UN’s cultural arm Unesco.

On August 17, the International Criminal Court in The Hague ruled that Malian ex-jihadist Ahmad al-Faqi al-Mahdi caused $3million in damages when he destroyed some of the mausoleums and ordered the payment of compensation to victims.

Mahdi, of the Tuareg people, was jailed for nine years by the court in a landmark verdict in September after he pleaded guilty to directing attacks on the Unesco World Heritage site.

‘City of 333 saints’

The mausoleums are the tombs of revered Muslim sages, known as “saints” in Timbuktu, a city listed as a Unesco World Heritage site, then put on its List of World Heritage in Danger in 2012.

Unesco said the city counts 16 cemeteries and mausoleums which were an important part of the region’s religious belief system and were thought to protect the city from danger.

As well as in cemeteries and mosques, the revered mausoleums, adorned with headstones and other funerary insignia, are found in alleyways and private residences.

Experts say the oldest go back to the 14th century.

Timbuktu, founded by Tuaregs between the fifth and 12th centuries, has been nicknamed the “City of 333 Saints”, a reference to the number of Muslim sages buried there.

A Malian historian said the number was the equivalent of Christian patron saints.

They were considered protectors of the city, and were called on for marriages, to pray for rain and fight against disease.

Islamic centre of learning

Timbuktu was an important centre of learning for the diffusion of Islamic culture, a crossroads and an important marketplace.

The cultural and economic apogee of Timbuktu came about during the 15th and 16th centuries.

It is the site of three major historic mosques: Djingareyber, Sankore and Sidi Yahia.

Although restored in the 16th century, the mosques are threatened by advancing sand dunes.

The city is also known for its tens of thousands of manuscripts, some of which go back to the 12thcentury, and others to the pre-Islamic era.

Idolatrous

In 2012, jihadists linked to groups such as al-Qaeda destroyed 14 of the 16 mausoleums inscribed on the World Heritage List.

The jihadists used pickaxes and bulldozers to demolish the sites, denouncing them as idolatrous.

The Islamists took over northern Mali in March-April 2012, after a March coup had plunged the countryinto chaos. A French-led international military operation helped drive them off. - AFP