Mali's History at Risk: Sarah Searight Highlights the Problem of Pillaging for Those Trying to Piece Together Mali's Rich Heritage

By Searight, Sarah | History Today, May 2005 | Go to article overview
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Mali's History at Risk: Sarah Searight Highlights the Problem of Pillaging for Those Trying to Piece Together Mali's Rich Heritage


Searight, Sarah, History Today


THE LOOTING OF IRAQI TREASURES has been much in the news since the occupation of that sad country, in spite of the fact that it had been going on for years. The appetite of the international art and antiquities market is insatiable. For a much poorer country, with a long history but few funds with which to preserve it, looting, or pillaging, means the irretrievable destruction of that history. This is the case in Mali.

Mali is one of the poor countries of Africa. Most of its 1.2m sq km consists of the Saharan desert and the sub-Saharan Sahel. Yet it has one of the longest continual histories in sub-Saharan Africa, much of it focused on the extraordinary Inland Delta of the so-called 'Niger Bend'. Here the Niger does a huge curve northwards and later southwards. The river divides into two main branches and innumerable smaller waterways which during the rainy season cover the flood plain with several feet of water. It is the most fertile part of the country and much of Mali's history lies buried beneath the mud of ages.

At the heart of the Delta is the vast low mound of Jenne Jeno. Archaeologists from Rice University in Houston working in the 1980s dated that city's foundation to around the third century BC, making it the oldest city in sub-Saharan Africa and flourishing through the first millennium AD. Current opinion favours the gradual abandonment of the site for the present nearby city of Jenne whose medieval prosperity probably coincided with the foundation and flourishing of Timbuktu, on the northeastern edge of the flood plain.

The coming of Islam from the ninth century led to the development of cross-Saharan trade routes. Written descriptions of the country and its people followed. These are the descriptions of outsiders--including Arabic accounts of travellers, Muslim pilgrims, geographers, the early sixteenth-century history of Africa by Leo Africanus and later European accounts. There are also strong oral traditions often preserved by ballad singers. Between them the history of the medieval empires that flourished in Mali are chronicled--the empire of Ancient Ghana, destroyed by Almoravid invasions from the north, the Mali Empire from the thirteenth to late fourteenth century, the Songay Empire to the late sixteenth century and so on up to the arrival of the French in the later nineteenth, coinciding with a final imperial flourish with the Tukolor Empire based on a revival of Islam.

But of objects to bring that history to life there is a paucity. The archaeologists at Jenne Jeno found a few remarkable examples of early medieval craftsmanship, some of which are in Mali's National Museum in the capital Bamako. The site museum itself has three or four objects, and a large warning poster drawing attention to the problems of pillaging. However, neither display can compare with the superb array that featured in the Mali section of the Royal Academy's 1996 exhibition, 'Africa: the Art of a Continent'. Most of those came from private collections. Pillaging at Jenne has been much reduced by the recruiting of local guards and local interest in the museum. But elsewhere the problem remains widespread. As the catalogue to the Royal Academy exhibition pointed out, 'illicit pillaging is doubly harmful; it not only removes the objects but also conceals or destroys the evidence' as to provenance, age, context and historical associations.

Between the twin commercial hubs of Jenne and Timbuktu, lies the medieval history of Mali. The director of Mali's National Museum maintains there are thousands of ancient sites throughout the Niger Bend, and at least seventy officially noted in the Jenne region. All but a handful of these have been excavated yet most have been pillaged over the years. The unexcavated sites are pockmarked with holes dug by locals in the hopes of unearthing an antiquity they can sell.

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