2007 Schools Wikipedia Selection. Related subjects: African Geography

Location of Timbuktu in Mali

The city of Timbuktu ( English: Timbuctoo, Koyra Chiini: Tumbutu, French: Tombouctou) is a city in Mali, West Africa. It is home to the prestigious Qur'anic Sankore University and other madrasas, and was an intellectual and spiritual capital and centre for the propagation of Islam throughout Africa in the 15th and 16th centuries. Its three great mosques, Djingareyber, Sankore and Sidi Yahia, recall Timbuktu's golden age. Although continuously restored, these monuments are today under threat from desertification.

Timbuktu is populated by Songhay, Tuareg, Fulani, and Moorish people, and is about 15km north of the River Niger. It is also at the intersction of an east-west and a north-south Trans-Saharan trade across the Sahara to Araouane. It was important historically (and still is today) as an entrepot for rock-salt from Taoudenni.

Its geographical setting made it a natural meeting point for nearby African populations and nomadic Berber and Arab peoples from the north. Its long history as a trading outpost that linked west Africa with Berber, Arab, and Jewish traders throughout north Africa, and thereby indirectly with traders from Europe, has given it a fabled status, and in the West it was for long a metaphor for exotic, distant lands: "from here to Timbuktu."

Timbuktu's long-lasting contribution to Islamic and world civilization is scholarship . By the fourteenth century, important books were written and copied in Timbuktu, establishing the city as the centre of a significant written tradition in Africa.


Timbuktu was established by the nomadic Tuareg perhaps as early as the 10th century. Like its predecessor, Tiraqqa, a neighboring trading city of the Wangara, Timbuktu grew to great wealth because of its key role in trans-Saharan trade in gold, ivory, slaves, salt and other goods by the Tuareg, Mandé and Fulani merchants, transferring goods from caravans coming from the Islamic north to boats on the Niger. Thus if the Sahara functioned as a sea, Timbuktu was a major port. It became a key city in several successive empires: the Ghana Empire, the Mali Empire from 1324, and the Songhai Empire from 1468, the second occupations beginning when the empires overthrew Tuareg leaders who had regained control. It reached its peak in the early 16th century, but its capture in 1591 by a band of Moroccan adventurers was not the start so much as a symptom of the crumbling of the ancient economy with Portuguese goods that came instead from the river's mouth (Braudel pp 434–35).

The leaders of the Songhai kingdom (also spelled Songhay) began expanding their domain along the Niger River. Like the kingdoms of Ghana and Mali that flourished in the region in earlier centuries, Songhai grew powerful because of its control of local trade routes. Timbuktu would soon become the heart of the mighty Songhai Empire. It became wealthy because many merchants traveled trade routes that went through it.

Legendary tales

A sign in the Sahara about the distance to Timbuktu in caravan
A sign in the Sahara about the distance to Timbuktu in caravan

Tales of Timbuktu's fabulous wealth helped prompt European exploration of the west coast of Africa. Among the earliest descriptions of Timbuktu are those of Leo Africanus, Ibn Battuta and Shabeni.

The place name is said to come from a Tuareg woman named Buktu who dug a well in the area where the city stands today; hence "Timbuktu", which means "Buktu's well".

Ibn Battuta

Ibn Battuta (1304-1368) was a Moroccan Berber traveller born in Tangier. He spent 30 years travelling the Muslim world from Timbuktu to Turkey, Central Asia, China and India. He was probably the first outsider to document his visit to Timbuktu:

Timbuktu...is four miles from the Nile. Most of its inhabitants are Massufa, people of the veil. Its governor...called Farba Musa...appointed one of the Massufa as amir over a company...placed on him a garment, a turban and trousers, all of them of dyed material. He then seated him on a shield and he was lifted up by the elders of his tribe on their heads...At Timbuktu I embarked on the Nile (Niger) in a small vessel carved from one piece of wood. We used to come ashore every night in a village to buy what we needed of food and ghee in exchange for salt and perfumes and glass ornaments.

Leo Africanus

Perhaps most famous among the tales written about Timbuktu is that by Leo Africanus aka "Leo the African". As a captured renegade who later converted back to Islam from Christianity, following a trip in 1512, when the Songhai empire was at its height he wrote the following:

The rich king of Tombuto hath many plates and sceptres of gold, some whereof weigh 1300 pounds. ... He hath always 3000 horsemen ... (and) a great store of doctors, judges, priests, and other learned men, that are bountifully maintained at the king's expense.

At the time of Leo Africanus' visit, grass was abundant, providing plentiful milk and butter in the local cuisine, though there were neither gardens nor orchards surrounding the city.


Shabeni was a merchant from Tetuan who was captured and ended up in England where he told his story of how as a child of 14, around 1787, he had gone with his father to Timbuktu. A version of his story is related by James Grey Jackson in his book An Account of Timbuctoo and Hausa, 1820:

On the east side of the city of Timbuctoo, there is a large forest, in which are a great many elephants. The timber here is very large. The trees on the outside of the forest are remarkable...they are of such a size that the largest cannot be girded by two men. They bear a kind of berry about the size of a walnut, in clusters consisting of from ten to twenty berries. Shabeeny cannot say what is the extent of this forest, but it is very large.

Centre of learning

During the early 15th century, a number of Islamic institutions were erected. The most famous of these is the Sankore mosque, also known as the University of Sankore.

While Islam was practiced in the cities, the local rural majority were non-Muslim traditionalists. Often the leaders were nominal Muslims in the interest of economic advancement while the masses were traditionalists.

University of Sankore

Map from 1855
Map from 1855

Sankore was built in 989 AD and became the centre of the Islamic scholarly community in Timbuktu. The "University of Sankore" was a madrassah, very different in organization from the universities of medieval Europe. It was composed of several entirely independent schools or colleges, each run by a single master or imam. Students associated themselves with a single teacher, and courses took place in the open courtyards of mosque complexes or private residences. The primary focus of these schools was the teaching of the Qur'an, although broader instruction in fields such as logic, astronomy, and history also took place. Scholars wrote their own books as part of a socioeconomic model based on scholarship. The profit made by buying and selling of books was only second to the gold-salt trade. Among the most formidable scholars, professors and lecturers was Ahmed Baba--a highly distinguished historian frequently quoted in the Tarikh-es-Sudan and other works.

The Library of Timbuktu

The collection of ancient manuscripts at the University of Sankore and other sites around Timbuktu document the magnificence of the institution, as well as the city itself, while enabling scholars to reconstruct the past in fairly intimate detail. Dating from the 16th to the 18th centuries, these manuscripts cover every aspect of human endeavor and are indicative of the high level of civilization attained by West Africans at the time. In testament to the glory of Timbuktu, for example, a West African Islamic proverb states that "Salt comes from the north, gold from the south, but the word of God and the treasures of wisdom come from Timbuktu."

Among the libraries which have been preserving these manuscripts are: Institut des Hautes Etudes et de Recherche Islamique - Ahmed Baba, Timbuktu; Mamma Haidara Library; Fondo Kati Library; Al-Wangari Library; and Mohamed Tahar Library. These libraries are considered part of the " African Ink Road" that stretched from West Africa connecting North Africa and East Africa. At one time there were 120 libraries with manuscripts in Timbuktu and surrounding areas. There are more than one million objects preserved in Mali with an additional 20 million in other parts of Africa, the largest concentration of which is in Sokoto, Nigeria, although the full extent of the manuscripts is unknown. During the colonial era efforts were made to conceal the documents after a number of entire libraries were taken to Paris, London and other parts of Europe. Some manuscripts were buried underground, while others were hidden in the desert or in caves. Many are still hidden today. The United States Library of Congress microfilmed a sampling of the manuscripts during an exhibit there in June of 2003.

Ravage and decline

The city began to decline after explorers and slavers from Portugal and then other European countries landed in West Africa, providing an alternative to the slave market of Timbuktu and the trade route through the world's largest desert. The decline was hastened when it was invaded by Morisco mercenaries armed with European-style guns in the service of the Moroccan sultan in 1591.

In 1824, the Paris-based Société de Géographie offered a 10,000 franc prize to the first non- Muslim to reach the town and return with information about it. Scot Gordon Laing made it in September 1826, but was killed shortly after by local Muslims who were fearful of European discovery and intervention. Frenchman René Caillé arrived in 1828 traveling alone and disguised as Muslim; he was able to safely return and claim the prize.

Robert Adams, an African-American sailor, claimed to have visited the city in 1811 as a slave after his ship wrecked off the African coast.. He later gave an account to the British counsel in Tangier, Morocco in 1813. He published his account in an 1816 book, The Narrative of Robert Adams, a Barbary Captive (still in print as of 2006), but doubts remain about his account. Only two other Europeans reached the city before 1890: Heinrich Barth in 1853 and Oskar Lenz in 1880.

In the 1990s, Timbuktu came under attack from Tuareg people hoping to build their own state. The Tuareg Rebellion was symbolically ended with a weapons burning in the town in 1996.

Timbuktu today

A typical street scene of Timbuktu, Mali, with omnipresent bread-baking furnaces
A typical street scene of Timbuktu, Mali, with omnipresent bread-baking furnaces

Today, Timbuktu is an impoverished town, although its reputation makes it a tourist attraction to the point where it even has an international airport, in spite of the fact that a recent poll showed that 34% of young British did not believe the town existed, while the other 66% considered it "a mythical place". It is one of the eight regions of Mali, and is home to the region's local governor. It is the sister city to Djenné, also in Mali. The 1998 census listed its population at 31,973, up from 31,962 in the census of 1987.

Timbuktu is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, listed since 1988. In 1990, it was added to the list of world heritage sites in danger due to the threat of desert sands. A program was set up to preserve the site and, in 2005, it was taken off the list of endangered sites.

It was one of the major stops during Henry Louis Gates' PBS special "Wonders of the African World". Gates visited with Abdel Kadir Haidara, curator of the Mamma Haidara Library together with Ali Ould Sidi from the Cultural Mission of Mali. It is thanks to Gates that an Andrew Mellon Foundation Grant was obtained to finance the construction of the library's facilities, later inspiring the work of the Timbuktu Manuscripts Project. Unfortunately, no practising book artists exist in Timbuktu although cultural memory of book artisans is still alive, catering to the tourist trade. The town is home to an institute dedicated to preserving historic documents from the region, in addition to two small museums (one of them a former explorer's house), and the symbolic Flame of Peace monument.


Timbuktu's vernacular architecture is marked by mud mosques, which are said to have inspired Antoni Gaudí. These include

  • Djinguereber Mosque, built in 1327 by El Saheli
  • Sankore Mosque, also known as Sankore University, built in the early fifteenth century
  • Sidi Yahya mosque, built in the 1441 by Mohamed Naddah.

Other attractions include a museum, terraced gardens and a water tower.


The main language of Timbuktu is a Songhay variety termed Koyra Chiini, spoken by over 80% of residents. Smaller groups, numbering 10% each before many were expelled during the Tuareg/Arab rebellion of 1990-1994, speak Hassaniya Arabic and Tamashek.

Famous people connected with Timbuktu

  • Ali Farka Toure (1939–2006) Born in Timbuktu.

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