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The door of Resurrection pried open

[ by Charles Cameron — Ansar al-Din destruction of shrines in Timbuktu expands to include elimination of mosque door and haram eschatological belief ]


Various positions can be taken, with significantly different emphases, concerning the destruction of the shrines and mausoleums of Timbuctu.

There is the military assessment:

The international community fears the vast desert area will become a new haven for terrorist activity and the Islamists have threatened any country that joins a possible military intervention force in Mali.

The legal opinion:

International Criminal Court prosecutor Fatou Bensouda on Sunday warned that the destruction could amount to a war crime. “My message to those involved in these criminal acts is clear: stop the destruction of the religious buildings now,” Bensouda told AFP in an interview in Dakar. “This is a war crime which my office has authority to fully investigate.”

The attacks come just days after UNESCO declared Timbuktu an endangered world heritage site, so there is the cultural preservation argument:

United Nations chief Ban Ki-moon deplored the destruction of tombs, with his spokesman Martin Nesirky quoting him as saying: “Such attacks against cultural heritage sites are totally unjustified.”

There is the condemnation from much of the Islamic world:

The Organisation of Islamic Cooperation condemned the destruction, saying in a statement the sites were “part of the rich Islamic heritage of Mali and should not be allowed to be destroyed by … bigoted extremist elements.”


Algeria condemned the destruction of tombs which “constitute a homage and a recognition by the local people to the saints and scholars who contributed to the flourishing of Islam in the region and to the spread of the values of tolerance and spirituality.”

And then there is the reason given by the Ansar al-Din themselves:

“God is unique. All of this is haram (forbidden in Islam). We are all Muslims. UNESCO is what?” spokesman Sanda Ould Boumama said on Saturday. He said the group was acting in the name of God and would “destroy every mausoleum in the city. All of them, without exception”.


Here’s how the locals saw the destruction of one specific door into the Mosque of Sidi Yahia in Timbuktu:

Islamist militants in northern Mali on Monday destroyed the ‘sacred’ door of one of Timbuktu’s three ancient mosques after smashing seven tombs of muslim saints over the weekend, witnesses said. “The Islamists have just destroyed the door to the entrance of the Sidi Yahya mosque… they tore the sacred door off which we never open,” said a resident of the town. A former tour guide in the once-popular tourist destination said: “They came with pick-axes, they cried ‘Allah’ and broke the door. It is very serious. Some of the people watching began crying.”

Another man, a relative of a local imam (religious leader), said he had spoken to Islamist group Ansar Dine (Defenders of Faith) who have gone on a rampage destroying cultural treasures after occupying the town for three months. “Some said that the day this door is opened it will be the end of the world and they wanted to show that it is not the end of the world.” The door on the south end of the mosque has been closed for centuries due to local beliefs that to open it will bring misfortune.

All quotes above from various versions of Serge Daniel’s AFP reporting, see eg: Islamists smash Timbuktu relics, plant mines in north Mali.


Did you catch that?

Some said that the day this door is opened it will be the end of the world and they wanted to show that it is not the end of the world.

There’s irony for you: the Ansar destroyed the ancient door to demonstrate that it wouldn’t bring on the Yawm al-Qiyamah, the Day of Judgment and Resurrection — they’re demythologizing the legend that has it that it will open only on the Day — in the stilted translation offered by Google:

The Abu Turab; who is a member of Ansar al-Din, he emphasized that what happened is the kind of “Aspects of the elimination of superstition and heresy, and the excuse they may reach a trap,” adding: “We have heard our ears that there is a door in the courtyard of the Mosque of Sidi Yahia old if open The Resurrection, and verified what we learned from it that he canceled the door in the courtyard of the mosque is the door has been canceled accumulation Vtm filled soil on it.

Indeed, the photo in the tweet at the head of this post — which is subtitled The process of opening the door of the Holy Sepulchre in Tinbactu — actually downloads under the title “bab alqyama” — door of the Day of Resurrection.


Belief in the Last Day, the Yawm al-Qiyamah, is mandatory of Muslims in accordance with the revelation of Qur’an 4.136:

O ye who believe! Believe in Allah and His Messenger, and the scripture which He hath sent to His Messenger and the scripture which He sent to those before (him). Any who denieth Allah, His angels, His Books, His Messengers, and the Day of Judgment, hath gone far, far astray.


Here’s an image of one of the beautiful doors from the same mosque:

photo credit: Jean-Luc Dighaye, EurAstro visit to Mali

I am not clear whether this is a photo of the same door which was destroyed, however, and would appreciate any further info.


You might like to drink a cool glass of water at this point, to cleanse your palate…


Here’s my preferred quote on opening doors into sacred space:

When you have grown still on purpose while everything around you is asking for chaos, you will find the doors between every room of the interior castle thrown open, the path home to your true love unobstructed after all.

St. Teresa of Avila

h/t kathe izzo, who tweeted this today for reasons unconnected with Timbuctu as far as i can tell…

7 Responses to “The door of Resurrection pried open”

  1. Michael Says:

    Superb article. Have come to expect nothing less. First class post…

  2. Michael Says:

    Link to Kathe Izzo seems not to be working…

  3. Charles Cameron Says:

    Fixed. thanks!

  4. Curtis Gale Weeks Says:

    Well this is very interesting, because by nature I have a very deep love of iconoclasm—in the abstract, at least.
    As with any deep love, there should be room for moderation, however.  Or as Montaigne said, even a virtue can be ruined through excessive practice.  (Very crude paraphrase.)
    But dear god what would happen if all religious icons were spontaneously destroyed, everywhere? 
    But more to the point, perhaps, is the question of whether actions can be iconographic; and so, is the destruction of this door merely the replacement of one icon with another?  Keeping in mind (circuitously if necessary, as it might be) that both the door and its destruction were performances.

  5. J. Scott Shipman Says:

    Hi Charles,
    This is extraordinary, thanks for sharing—love the get away quote. 

  6. zen Says:

    The Taliban of the Mahgreb

  7. Charles Cameron Says:

    Thanks for the pointer, Zen.
    As I said on Twitter yesterday, I was with Julian West in Bamiyan the first time she climbed atop the head of the great Buddha of Bamiyan, an occasion which she describes in one of the other Telegraph pieces linked to from the article you just pointed us to.
    A ftiend of mine, Gregory McNamee, wrote Bamiyan up for the Britannica blog in March last year, and I responded with a poem which I’ll post here (as always, my excuse is the encouragement Madhu gives me):

    Trikaya at Bamiyan
    — for Gregory McNamee
    There’s something inherently evaporative
    about a Buddha’s body, it erodes –
    through neglect, the silk scarves of devotion,
    the weather, the Taliban –
    something inherently condensate
    about a Buddha’s mind, it
    accrues, it deepens, enriches as time
    echoes it back on itself — there
    is no mirror such as the Buddha’s mirror.
    Left in that cleft in Bamiyan’s
    rock face, then, are our memories – for some,
    joy in purification, for some, grief at loss,
    and in the mirror, in time,
    Bamiyan, its people, farmland and sky.

    Julian’s response to my poem is worth reading. 
    And here’s the photo Greg posted — Bamiyan without the Buddha:

    I should have a post on comparisons — Bamiyan / Timbuctu, for instance — coming up shortly.

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