Islamists tore off the wooden doors, gates and window frames of the mausoleum and burned them. The tomb of Sidi Mahmoud Ben Amar is worshipped by local people who believe he has the power to bring rain.
“Some Islamists don’t accept that people in the community worship a dead man. They think people should only worship Allah,” Lazare Eloundou Assomo, the chief of the World Heritage Centre’s Africa Unit at Unesco.
Ansar Dine ceased control of Timbuktu from Tuareg separatists late last month. The group is fighting to impose Sharia law in northern Mali. A campaign that includes destroying non-Islamic relics and banning men and women socializing in public.
Timbuktu is one of the oldest Islamic centres in Africa. The city is home to over 700,000 manuscripts some dating back to the 13th century written in Arabic and African languages.
Much of the city, including three earthen mosques and 16 mausoleums, was given World Heritage status in 1988.
Last month Unesco’s Director General, Irina Bokova, expressed her “deep concern” for the cultural heritage in the region. But there is little Unesco can do to protect World Heritage sites under threat during armed conflict.
“We don’t have people on the ground, but we are in constant contact with local people,” Eloundou Assomo confirmed.
The tomb in Timbuktu is not the first World Heritage site to be affected by conflict. In Afghanistan the Taliban blew up the Buddhas Bamyan in 2001 during their campaign of Islamization.