The Tomb of Askia is located along the Niger River in Gao, Mali. It was built in 1495 and symbolizes the important phase of Western African History when Gao became the capitol of a Songhai Empire and Islam was adopted as the official religion in the 15th and 16th centuries. It is also known as the burial place of the great emperor, Askia Mohammad. The Tomb of Askia is now used as a mosque and cultural center for the people that reside in Gao (New World Encyclopedia 2015).
The tomb stands 17 meters tall and was constructed completely with mud bricks. Gao remains dry for majority of they year, but they always experience a rainy season. As the rain pours down over the city of Gao, the walls of the tall pyramid begin to thin and deform. In the past, citizens of Gao would add a layer of plaster to the tomb every year to protect it from the rain. Unfortunately, the government in Mali was overrun and is under the rule of a new jihadist. Gao has been taken over by MNLA rebels, and the people are now struggling to survive and support their families. It is now impossible for these people to tend it, and the Tomb of Askia is suffering. The prayer room is falling apart and on the verge of collapsing. If it is not fixed soon, there is no telling what could happen to the tomb and everything that it represents (UNESCO 2016).
The Tomb of Askia was added to UNESCO‘s list of World Heritage Sites in 2004. It became part of this list because of the destructive environment that has led to erosion of the tomb and the conflict that has consumed city of Gao. From 2002-2007, the Tomb of Askia was also included in the Conservation and Management Plan, as well as the African Program in 2009. These policies tremendously improved the conditions of the tomb, but then the Tomb of Askia was put on the list of World Heritage Sites in Danger in 2012.
Video that goes into the background and discusses the importance of the Tomb of Askia. Can be found at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Wl6IUy4rEPQ
The two endangering factors, in regards to the Tomb of Askia, are conflict and environmental issues; the environmental issue being erosion due to heavy rainfall. Archaeologists have studied these endangering factors in other areas and have found a large amount of valuable information on how to handle the current conflicts and deal with the environmental stain on the tomb.
There has been conflict appearing in several locations around Mali. Although this is clearly not good for Mali, it has provided archaeologists with insight on what the people of Goa need to do to save the Tomb of Askia. Conflict surrounded the Great Mosque of Djenne. While the Old Towns of Djenne was under attack, the mosque was weakened and became harder to care for. Looting began to occur, and precious memories of African, Islamic history disappeared. As this devastated the people living in this area, it allowed archaeologists to study the situation and apply their research in ways that would help protect the Tomb of Askia. When the city of Gao became occupied by extremists and rebels, the citizens defended the Tomb of Askia. They took this risk to prevent the damages that occurred to the Great Mosque. Had Djenne not suffered through an attack first, experts would not have known the protection required to safe the tomb in Gao.
Archaeologists have also used the recent events in Djenne to study the environmental effects of the rain on the mud-brick structures. As the rain deteriorated the walls of the Great Mosque of Djenne, it required a new layer of plaster; every year, the citizens of Djenne would add a layer of mud to the mosque to try to preserve the building. This, however, led to significant remodeling of the Great Mosque. Over time, the edges of the buildings have been smoothed over. These rounded-edges did not last long though because the repetition of plastering almost caused the mosques to collapse. An extensive restoration was requires to save the Great Mosque of Djenne. Archaeologists have been able to learn from these past mistakes and demonstrate the cultural importance behind these sites have. Unesco has now created a special fund dedicated to the rehabilitation of the Tomb of Askia and the protection of the local communities living in Gao (UNESCO 2016).
More recently, there has been advancements in the punishment received by those trying to damage these cultural sites. In Timbuktu, a member of jihadist group was caught and plead guilty to the act of destroying several different mud buildings; he now faces up to 30 years in prison. This is the first time in Mali’s court system that a man has faced a prosecution of the destruction of cultural heritage as a a war crime. Many archaeologists are pleased that attacks against cultural heritage are starting to be considered more seriously (Cotter 2012).
Insight Into Global Issues
It is obvious that with more archaeological research, we will learn how to better protect cultural sites from these endangering factors. As discussed above, we see that the Tomb of Askia has benefited greatly by archaeological research done in other areas of Mali. Due to archaeological research, the tomb has received better care during times of turmoil and distress. The people of Gao now have a better understanding of the most useful ways to preserve the tomb and prevent it from being destroyed during the rainy season in Mali. With the help of archaeologists, many countries are beginning to recognize the importance of cultural heritage. Unesco has assisted Mali in designing an action plan for damaged cultural heritage, like the Tomb of Askia. this action plan is purposed to help rehabilitate Mali’s cultural heritage, as well as teach the people of Mali how to establish appropriate conditions for the management and conservation of their sites (UNESCO 2016).
When looking at the issues involved with the Tomb of Askia, it is difficult, if not impossible, to find ways to completely prevent these endangering factors from destroying cultural heritage. There is no way to stop the rain from falling on the mud-made building in Mali, but we can learn better methods of reconstruction. As Sabloff claims, war is inevitable. We cannot prevent conflicts from occurring, but we can use archaeological research from past conflicts to evaluate present-day issues in attempts to resolve or avoid them. Sabloff explains that most conflicts occur between groups within the same nation (Sabloff 2008: chapter 4). He was able to make this assumption based off past archaeological data; when looking at Mali, we see that their conflict comes from political issues between two groups. Had archaeologists never studied previous conflicts, the conflict in Mali may have seemed unusual and hard to handle.
UNESCO 2016 Tomb of Askia. http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/1139, accessed November 20, 2016.
UN News Centre 2012 Mali’s Timbuktu and Tomb of Askia sites added to List of World Heritage in Danger. http://www.un.org/apps/news/story.asp?NewsID=42347#.WESTheErJZ0, accessed December 1, 2016.
Simons, Marlise 2016 Extremist Pleads guilty in Hague Court to Destroying Cultural Sites in Timbuktu. The New York Times. http://www.nytimes.com/2016/08/23/world/europe/ahmed-al-mahdi-hague-trial.html?_r=0, accessed December 1, 2016.
New World Encyclopedia 2015 Tomb of Askia. http://www.newworldencyclopedia.org/entry/Tomb_of_Askia, accessed December 3, 2016.
Pannier, Jasmin 2016 Tomb of Askia, Mali. Art Under Assault. http://sites.uci.edu/artunderattack/tomb-of-askia-mali/, accessed November 22, 2016.
African World Heritage Sites 2011 Tomb of Askia – Mali. http://www.africanworldheritagesites.org/cultural-places/ancient-sub-saharan-civilisations/tomb-of-askia.html, accessed December 1, 2016.