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 in western Africa. People sometimes use the word Timbuktu to mean a place that is far away and hard to get to. However, at the peak of its fame, from about 1300 to 1600, Timbuktu was easy to reach. In fact, it was one of the world's greatest cities.

Timbuktu is now a shadow of its former self. It's just a small city on the edge of the ever-growing Sahara Desert. Timbuktu often strikes its infrequent visitors as humble and run-down.

It was not always so. Timbuktu was once a center of Arab-African trade and Islamic scholarship under the Mali Empire and Songhai Empire. In the early 1300s, Mansa Musa, the famous ruler of the Mali Empire, traveled through Timbuktu. At that time, he supposedly founded the Djinguereber and Sankore mosques. The third of the city's great mosques, Sidi Yahia, was built around 1400. These three astonishing places of worship, all rebuilt in the 1500s, recall Timbuktu's Golden Age.

In their prime, the city's mud-and-brick mosques were the home of a 25,000-student university. Scholars who studied at Timbuktu helped spread Islam through Africa between the 1300s and 1500s. Golden Age Timbuktu may have had a population as high as 100,000 people.

University Attracted People from All Over

Timbuktu's university was a center of learning that drew people in search of wisdom from all over Africa and the Middle East. The great teachings of Islam, as well as astronomy, mathematics, and medicine, were collected and produced here. Several hundred thousand manuscripts may still exist. They form a priceless written record of African and Islamic history.

Most of the manuscripts from Timbuktu's Golden Age are in private hands. Some people in Mali have established libraries and cultural centers to preserve the precious collection. They hope that Timbuktu's history can bring tourists — and money.

Religion was not the city's only industry. Timbuktu sits near the Niger River where Africa's savannas disappear into the sands of the Sahara Desert. Salt from the desert had great trade value. Camel caravans carried salt, as well as gold and ivory, hundreds of kilometers. This trade made the city rich. It was these profitable caravans that first brought scholars to congregate at the site.

In the late 1500s, invaders from Morocco began to drive the scholars out. Trade routes slowly shifted to the coasts and then across the Atlantic Ocean. Timbuktu became less important. In the late 1800s, France invaded and conquered the area. The French created a colony called French Sudan. However, they were not interested in developing Timbuktu. The glories of the city became a fading memory.

The Decline of Timbuktu

Mali won independence in 1960, and Timbuktu was added to the UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) World Heritage List in 1988. However, Mali had political problems. In 2012 and 2020, there were military coups that overthrew the government. Armed groups overran northern Mali. Some of these groups were extremists connected with Al Qaeda and ISIS. They destroyed some of Timbuktu's ancient buildings and manuscripts. In 2020, Timbuktu's population was barely 30,000.

Timbuktu is an obvious tourist destination. However, since 2012, Mali has struggled to attract visitors. The city is short of money to preserve its past. Many countries advise their citizens to avoid traveling to Timbuktu because of the danger.

Another problem is that Timbuktu is on the southern edge of the Sahara Desert. Global warming, soil erosion, and few resources compared to the people living there combined to degrade the land, shrink the Niger River and allow the desert to spread. It is harder to live in Timbuktu in 2020 than it was in 1420.

Timbuktu's history is one of the glories of 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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