VSFS Intern Spotlight: Documenting Sufi Shrines as Cultural Narrative

By Phoebe Alpern, Pomona College

As an intern with the Virtual Student Federal Service, I have focused on researching and geocoding instances of cultural heritage destruction in Tunisia and Syria. While analyzing search results from 2013, I encountered coverage of the destruction of three Sufi shrines in the Tunisian cities of Al Hamma, Douz, and Akouda. The article, only a few lines long, reported the torching of these three sites, and the attempted destruction of another mausoleum in Matmata. The information provided informed me only that these sites had been destroyed or were at risk, and quoted from the Tunisian Ministry of Culture’s statement on the attacks. There was no elaboration discussing how the identity of the attackers had been established, or what their motives were. In order to complete the necessary geographic information for geocoding these sites, I had to conduct further research.

As I looked up each of the locations in which a mausoleum or shrine had been destroyed, I came across more reporting on the status of these sites and contentions about who was responsible for their destruction, and why. The demolition of Sufi holy sites in Tunisia and other Middle Eastern and North African countries has been a long-standing controversy. Salafism, an ultra-conservative sect of Sunni Islam, is strongly opposed to the mystical practices of Sufism in an ancient conflict over the orthodoxy of religious practice, and Salafists were again accused in this round of destruction. These shrines, even though they appeared under-reported in my initial research, turned out to play an important role in a larger controversy. One article quoted Mazen Sharif, an official in a Sufi organization established to oppose anti-Sufi violence, who said that the destruction of these shrines was an indication of further violence to follow, and that the shrine’s attackers would destroy sites anathema to their theology while instituting stricter Salafist forms of Islamic law in the near future.


The Sufi mausoleum Sidi Bou Said after its destruction in 2013. Source: http://mideasti.blogspot.com/2013/01/mausoleum-of-sidi-bou-said-destroyed-in.html

The Sufi mausoleum Sidi Bou Said after its destruction in 2013 (source).

These statements underscore the depth of attachment and value associated with many cultural heritage sites, whether their significance is secular or religious. Events like the destruction of these shrines can be isolated incidents, but are often part of more complicated and longer-term controversies. Different social and religious groups react to cultural heritage destruction in a variety of ways, but their importance in the community can be great, especially in the case of sites considered either particularly historic or especially sacred. As it turns out, the destruction of these shrines on January 28 was a part of a spike in attacks on Sufi sanctuaries in the early 2010s, according to an NPR story published less than two weeks later.

Cultural heritage sites have immense social, historical, and often economic value, but their maintenance, protection, and destruction can also point to larger narratives of conflict and controversy that have been active for hundreds of years. The connection of these physical locations to larger cultural and societal stories makes their documentation and preservation all the more important.

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