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 as a synonym for 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 just a shadow of its former self. As 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 focal point of Arab-African trade and a center of 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 on his way to and from Mecca in, what is now, Saudi Arabia. At that time, he supposedly founded the Djinguereber and Sankore mosques. The third of the city's great mosques, Sidi Yahia, was founded around 1400. These three astonishing places of worship, all rebuilt in the 1500s, recall Timbuktu's Golden Age.

In their prime, the city's mosques were the home of a 25,000-student university and other madrasahs (religious schools that are often connected to mosques). These educational institutions helped spread Islam throughout Africa between the 14th and 16th centuries. Golden Age Timbuktu may have had a population as high as 100,000 people.

University Attracted People from All Over

Many of the most noteworthy buildings in Timbuktu were constructed in the mud-and-brick style of architecture. They were created by masons who packed mud and straw into bricks that were dried in the sun and then stacked together to create walls. To create the smooth finish on the outside, the masons added another layer of mud as a covering.

Timbuktu's university was a center of learning and culture that drew people in search of wisdom from all over Africa and the Middle East. Sacred texts were carried great distances to Timbuktu for the use of visiting scholars from places such as Cairo, Egypt; Baghdad, Iraq; and Persia. The great teachings of Islam, as well as astronomy, mathematics, and medicine were collected and produced there in several hundred thousand manuscripts. Many of them remain, although in precarious condition. They form a priceless written record of African and Islamic history.

Most of the manuscripts from Timbuktu's Golden Age are in private hands. Many have vanished into the illicit market in a trade that threatens to steal Timbuktu's heritage. Some people have established libraries and cultural centers to preserve the precious collection. They hope that Timbuktu's history can be a source of tourist revenue.

Religion was not the city's only industry. Timbuktu sits near the Niger River, where the African savannas disappear into the sands of the Sahara Desert. Salt from the desert was in high demand as a trade good. Camel caravans carried salt, as well as gold and ivory, hundreds of kilometers. These profitable caravans enriched the city in its heyday and first brought scholars to congregate at the site.

The Decline of Timbuktu

In the late 16th century, invaders from Morocco began to drive scholars out of Timbuktu. Trade routes slowly shifted to the coasts and then across the Atlantic Ocean. Timbuktu's importance and prestige declined. In the late 1800s, France invaded and conquered the area and created a colony called French Sudan. The French were uninterested in developing Timbuktu and the glories of the city became a faded memory.

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 has suffered from a great deal of political instability. In 2012 and 2020, military coups overthrew the government. In the chaos that followed, armed groups overran northern Mali. Some of these groups were violent Islamic fundamentalists connected with Al Qaeda and ISIS. They enforced Sharia law and destroyed some of Timbuktu's ancient mausoleums and manuscripts. By 2020, Timbuktu's population was barely 30,000 and it was not even among Mali's 10 largest cities.

Timbuktu would be an obvious tourist destination but the armed conflicts in northern Mali are not good for tourist development. Since 2012, Timbuktu has struggled to attract visitors and has been short of funds to preserve its past. Many countries advise their citizens to avoid traveling there because of the danger from soldiers, crime, and kidnappings.

Another problem is that Timbuktu is on the northern edge of the Sahel, a small band of land between the Sahara Desert on the north and the savannas on the south. The Sahel has suffered from recurring droughts for the last 50 years. Global warming, poor land-use choices, and population pressure have combined to degrade the land, shrink the Niger River, and allow the desert to spread. Timbuktu is far less hospitable in 2020 than it was in 1420.

Timbuktu's heritage is one of the glories of world history.

Media Credits

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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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