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Timbuktu

The Legendary City of Timbuktu in Mali, Africa

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Timbuktu Photo

A woman in Timbuktu baking bread in stone oven.

Peter Adams/Getty Images
The word "Timbuktu" (or Timbuctoo or Tombouctou) is used in several languages to represent a far-away place but Timbuktu is an actual city in the African country of Mali.

Located near the edge the Niger River during the rainy season (but about 8 miles from the river during much of the year), Timbuktu was founded by nomads in the twelfth century and it rapidly became a major trading depot for the caravans of the Sahara Desert.

During the fourteenth century, the legend of Timbuktu as a rich cultural center spread through the world. The beginning of the legend can be traced to 1324, when the Emperor of Mali made his pilgrimage to Mecca via Cairo. In Cairo, the merchants and traders were impressed by the amount of gold carried by the emperor, who claimed that the gold was from Timbuktu. Furthermore, in 1354 the great Muslim explorer Ibn Batuta wrote of his visit to Timbuktu and told of the wealth and gold of the region. Thus, Timbuktu became renown as an African El Dorado, a city made of gold.

During the fifteenth century, Timbuktu grew in importance but its homes were never made of gold. Timbuktu produced few of its own goods but served as the major trading center for salt trade across the desert region. The city also became a center of Islamic study and the home of a university and extensive library. The city's maximum population during the 1400s probably numbered somewhere between 50,000 to 100,000, with approximately one-quarter of the population composed of scholars and students.

The Timbuktu Legend Grows

The legend of Timbuktu's wealth refused to die and only grew. A 1526 visit to Timbuktu by a Muslim from Grenada, Leo Africanus, told of Timbuktu as a typical trading outpost. This only incited further interest in the city. In 1618, a London company was formed to establish trade with Timbuktu. Unfortunately, the first trading expedition ended up with the massacre of all its members and a second expedition sailed up the Gambia River and thus never reached Timbuktu.

In the 1700s and early 1800s, many explorers attempted to reach Timbuktu but none returned. Many unsuccessful and successful explorers were forced to drink camel urine, their own urine, or even blood to attempt to survive the barren Sahara desert. Known wells would be dry or would not provide enough water upon an expedition's arrival so water was quite scarce.

Mungo Park was a Scottish doctor who attempted a trip to Timbuktu in 1805. Unfortunately, his expedition team of dozens of Europeans and natives all died or abandoned the expedition along the way and Park was left to sail along the Niger River, never visiting Timbuktu, but merely shooting at people and other objects on the shore with his guns as his insanity increased along his voyage. His body was never found.

In 1824, the Geographical Society of Paris offered a reward of 7000 francs and a gold metal valued at 2,000 francs to the first European who could visit Timbuktu and return to tell their story of the mythical city.

European Arrival in Timbuktu

The first European acknowledged to have reached Timbuktu was Scottish explorer Gordon Laing. He left Tripoli in 1825 and traveled for a year and a month to reach Timbuktu. On the way, he was attacked by the ruling Tuareg nomads and was shot, cut by swords, and broke his arm. He recovered from the vicious attack and made his way to Timbuktu and arrived in August 1826. He was unimpressed with Timbuktu, which had, as Leo Africanus reported, become simply a salt trading outpost filled with mud-walled homes in the middle of a barren desert. Laing remained in Timbuktu for just over one month. Two days after leaving Timbuktu, Laing was murdered.

French explorer Rene-Auguste Caillie had better luck than Laing. He planned to make his trip to Timbuktu disguised as an Arab as part of a caravan, much to the chagrin of proper European explorers of the era. Caillie studied Arabic and the Islamic religion for several years. In April 1827, he left the coast of West Africa and reached Timbuktu a year later even though he was ill for five months during the trip. Caillie was unimpressed with Timbuktu and remained there for two weeks. He then returned to Morocco and then home to France. Caillie published three volumes about his travels and was awarded the prize from the Geographical Society of Paris.

German geographer Heinrich Barth left Tripoli with two other explorers in 1850 for a trek to Timbuktu but his companions both died. Barth reached Timbuktu in 1853 and did not return home until 1855 - he was feared dead by many. Barth gained fame through the publication of his five volumes of his experiences. As with previous explorers to Timbuktu, Barth found the city quite the anti-climax.

French Colonial Control of Timbuktu

In the late 1800s, France took control of the Mali region and decided to take Timbuktu away from the control of the violent Tuareg who controlled trade in the area. The French military was sent to occupy Timbuktu in 1894. Under the command of Major (later famous World War I General) Joseph Joffre, Timbuktu was occupied and became the site of a French fort. Communication between Timbuktu and France was difficult, making Timbuktu a unhappy place for a soldier to be stationed. Nonetheless, the area around Timbuktu was well protected from the Tuareg so other nomad groups were able to live without fear of the hostile Tuareg.

Modern Timbuktu

Even after the invention of air travel, the Sahara was unyielding. The plane making inaugural air flight from Algiers to Timbuktu in 1920 was lost. Eventually, a successful air strip was established although today Timbuktu is still most commonly reached by camel, motor vehicle, or boat. In 1960, Timbuktu became part of the independent country of Mali.

The population of Timbuktu in a 1940 census was estimated at approximately 5,000 people; in 1976, the population was 19,000; in 1987 (the latest estimate available), 32,000 people resided in the city.

In 1988, Timbuktu was designated a United Nations World Heritage Site and efforts are underway to preserve and protect the city and especially its centuries-old mosques.

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