A Guide to Timbuktu

A Guide to Timbuktu

The name Timbuktu conjures images of an exotic, far-flung location. This ancient West African city was once a center for scholarship and Islam


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Anthropology, Archaeology, Social Studies, World History



Modern day Timbuktu

Photograph by Maremagnum
Modern day Timbuktu
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Timbuktu is a city in the country of Mali. Mali is in western Africa. People sometimes use the word Timbuktu to mean a place that is far away and hard to get to. Long ago, Timbuktu was easy to reach. Between 1300 and 1600, it was one of the world's greatest cities.

Timbuktu is now just a small dusty city. Visitors to Timbuktu often think it is run-down.

It was not always like this. Timbuktu was once a center of trade and culture. It was an important city in the Mali Empire and the Songhai Empire. In the early 1300s, Mansa Musa, the famous ruler of the Mali Empire, traveled through Timbuktu. It is believed that he built the Djinguereber and Sankore mosques. The third of the city's great mosques, Sidi Yahia, was built around 1400. They all still stand to remind visitors of Timbuktu's Golden Age.

These mosques were built with mud and brick. At one time, they were part of a university that had 25,000 students. Scholars studied at Timbuktu from all over Africa and the Middle East. Then they traveled and spread Islam throughout Africa.

Trade Made the City Rich

The teachings of Islam, as well as astronomy, mathematics, and medicine, were written down or collected at Timbuktu. Several hundred thousand manuscripts may still exist. They form a written record of African and Islamic history.

Trade used to make the city rich. Timbuktu sits on the edge of the Sahara Desert. Many people wanted salt from the desert. Camel caravans carried salt and other trade goods such as gold and ivory. This trade made the city rich. The caravans first brought scholars to gather at the site.

In the 1500s, Timbuktu began to decline. Invaders from Morocco drove out the scholars. Trade routes slowly changed. Trade now moved across the Atlantic Ocean. Caravans did not stop in the city anymore. Timbuktu became less important. In the late 1800s, France invaded the area. The city fell on hard times.

Not Enough Visitors

Mali won its independence in 1960. However, Mali had political problems. In 2012 and 2020, the army overthrew the government. Armed groups took over northern Mali. Some groups were connected with Al Qaeda and ISIS. They destroyed some of Timbuktu's old buildings.

Timbuktu should be filled with tourists. But Mali has trouble attracting visitors. The city has no money to save its old buildings. There are other problems. Global warming and soil erosion has caused the Sahara Desert to spread around Timbuktu.

Timbuktu was once one of the greatest cities in the world.

Media Credits

The audio, illustrations, photos, and videos are credited beneath the media asset, except for promotional images, which generally link to another page that contains the media credit. The Rights Holder for media is the person or group credited.

Tyson Brown, National Geographic Society
National Geographic Society
Production Managers
Gina Borgia, National Geographic Society
Jeanna Sullivan, National Geographic Society
Program Specialists
Sarah Appleton, National Geographic Society, National Geographic Society
Margot Willis, National Geographic Society
Clint Parks
Roza Kavak
Last Updated

October 19, 2023

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