The United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organisation has put Timbuktu on the list of endangered World Heritage sites at the request of the Malian government, who are desperate to save the historic richness of its fabled city. After Al Qaeda-linked Islamists declared they had secured full control of Mali's desert north, a day after pushing their former Tuareg separatist allies out of the town of Gao in a gun battle that reportedly killed at least 20 people.

Here is the Al Farouk monument before it was damaged by Islamist rebels. It is said to be the Genie Protector of Timbuktu, a reassuring presence for the people living here. The monument now has a broken head and foot. The legend says when he was around; all doors were closed by a certain hour of the night, all the kids safe inside, listening to fables whose morals taught correct behaviour.

A man from Timbuktu's cultural community read a statement appealing to the international community.

"Serious risks of destruction threaten all this richness, so we'd like to bring to the attention of the international community to this most worrying state of affairs. Timbuktu is on the verge of losing its soul, Timbuktu is on the verge of imminent vandalism. Timbuktu has on its throat the knife ready of a cold assassination. Timbuktu is under the cannons of destruction."

Timbuktu has 333 tombs of holy saints among which 16 are classified as UNESCO World Heritage Sites including that of Sidi Mahamoud Ben Amar, a learned scholar who is considered the most sacred in the city. Al-Qaeda Islamist rebels want to impose sharia law, in the recently conquered northern Mali, and destroy monuments and shrines they view as idolatry and having no place in a Muslim's rituals.

Written and Presented by Ann Salter