The name “Timbuktu” in popular culture usually refers to some remote, far-away place. “Crikey, you live way out in Timbuktu!” For others, it may conjure up exotic images of a desert oasis full of camels, palm trees, and turbans. Timbuktu is actually a city in west Africa, located in the center of the nation of Mali. It lies within the southern edge of the vast Sahara Desert about 20 km north of the Niger River. It even looks like a desert outpost, with most mosques and structures built of sand-brown adobe.
For centuries, Timbuktu, was a bustling center of trade, wealth, culture and learning during the “Golden Age of Islam.” It was larger than London in the 14th century. Today, it is a sad shadow of its former self. With few modern buildings, a non-existent tourist trade, and no major industry, it is slowly crumbling away, becoming a part of the Saharan sands itself.
What caused such a drastic turn of events?
Due to its strategic location at the southern edge of the Saharan Desert, and the northern edge of the Niger River delta, Timbuktu used to be a key desert trading city. When Islam came to the local Tuareg people, the desert tribes expanded the religion via trading posts like Timbuktu. The Tuaregs built the first mosque, the Sankoré Mosque, in 1100 AD. All the West African and Saharan kingdoms traded heavily there. It also became a key link between Arab Muslims and West African Muslims.
The Mali Empire came to power in the 13th century on the Niger River, then grew in prestige and influence. The empire became a hub of trade, learning, culture, and mosques. Malian King Mansu Mousa annexed the city of Timbuktu in 1324. Almost overnight, Timbuktu transformed from a trading post into a center of commerce and scholarship. Caravans exchanged salt, gold, ivory and slaves. Powerful West African and Islamic tribes traveled from across Africa to trade, learn, and foster alliances.
While Europe struggled through the Dark Ages and the Black Plague, the Mali Empire thrived. Mansa Mousa invited Islamic scholars to Timbuktu and together built the Djinguereber Mosque. In the 15th century, when Tuareg king Akil Akamalwa came to power, he then built the great Sidi Yahya mosque, all rivalling those in Cairo.
By the 15th century, Timbuktu was in its own “Golden Age” as one of the world’s great centers of learning, much like the former Alexandria in Egypt. In Timbuktu, vast collections of books symbolized wealth, power, and blessings from Allah. Hundreds of scholars studied at the nearly 200 maktabs (Quranic schools). The 3 great mosques were centers of learning, not just Islamic law but also geography, mathematics, and astronomy.
“Salt comes from the north, gold from the south, but the word of God and the treasures of wisdom are only to be found in Timbuctoo.”Malian proverb
The Mali Empire was replaced in the 15th century by the Songhai Empire. Askia Muhammad, reigned from 1492 to 1528 and continued the Islamic learning tradition in Timbuktu. All that glory and prestige changed when Morocco’s Saadian dynasty invaded the empire. They seized control of Timbuktu in 1591. Much of the city’s centers of learning were destroyed in the raid and many important manuscripts were lost. Under Moroccan control, the city began its long, slow decline.
Meanwhile, in Europe, Timbuktu did not escape notice.
It had built up a reputation as a kind of African El Dorado, a city of gold, hidden somewhere deep in the sun-baked Sahara. European explorers began making the dangerous trek into Africa, searching for this legendary city. Those who came inland from the western coast often died of malaria and other tropical diseases on the muddy Niger River. Those who dared to cross the scorching sands of the Sahara faced death by dehydration, starvation, and marauding Tuareg warriors.
English poet Alfred Lord Tennyson even composed a lyric poem Timbuctoo, which only fueled the romantic image of the city. He wrote: “Wide Africa … is the rumour of thy Timbuctoo, a dream as frail as that of ancient Time?”
Scottish explorer Gordon Laing was the first European to make it to Timbuktu in 1826. But he did not live to tell the tale back in Edinburgh. Desert marauders attacked his caravan and murdered him. Frenchman René -Auguste Caillié was the first explorer to reach Timbuktu two years later in 1828 and survive the trek. After crossing the Sahara, he brought tales of his adventure back to Europe, but by then Timbuktu was already in its decline.
“I have been to Timbuktu!” he excitedly told the French consul in Tangier. But after all the tales of gilded minarets and palaces bursting with gold, Caillie was deeply disappointed.
“The city presented, at first view, nothing but a mass of buildings built of earth. I found it to be neither as large nor as dense as I expected; it is considerably less grand than its reputation. One doesn’t see a great rush of foreigners coming and going. I was surprised by the inertia that reigned in the city. In a word, everything exuded the greatest sadness.”Rene-Auguste Caillie
Timbuktu took a further step downward when French colonial troops invaded West Africa later that century. Timbuktu became a formal part of the colony of French Sudan in 1891. Much of Timbuktu’s culture was sadly looted and taken back to France. Some European tourists did come to Mali, to get a sepia photo of themselves riding camels at Timbuktu’s gates or visiting the famous mosques.
The French colonial government did little to halt the city’s decline.
Meanwhile Timbuktu’s Tuaregs, the blue-robed desert marauders, inspired Hollywood films like Beau Geste about the French Foreign Legion. After World War II, the French government, under Charles de Gaulle, granted the colony autonomy, then its freedom, creating the democratic Republic of Mali in 1960.
And what about contemporary times in Timbuktu? Regrettably, climate change has caused severe droughts for Mali in the 1980s and 1990s, nearly depleting Timbuktu’s water supplies. The Saharan sands began encroaching upon the ancient city, nature slowly reclaiming its property.
In 2012, Tuareg rebels led a coup and took over Northern Mali, including Timbuktu.
Compared to their ancestors, these modern raiders swapped camels for 4 x 4s, and swords for AK-47s. They threatened the cultural heritage of Mali by burning thousands of ancient manuscripts. They destroyed anything perceived as forbidden to their extreme brand of Islam, including its century-old manuscripts. Prior to the Tuareg coup, the country was viewed as one of West Africa’s most stable democracies.
A small team of Islamic scholars was able to rescue over 350,000 brittle manuscripts from 45 different libraries in and around Timbuktu and get them to the Mali capital. Some were hidden for generations in desert caves by Malians to keep them from Moroccan invaders, and then French colonialists, and and now Tuareg rebels. They managed to save a written history as old as the European Renaissance, an anthology from science and medicine, to history and politics.
With the Islamic rebels, some preaching strict Sharia, now in control of Timbuktu, tourists may not be returning any time soon. Most Western embassies have advisories against any travel to Timbuktu. Most hotels are empty or closed. France sent in troops to help the Mali government, but withdrew them after a recent military-led coup in 2021.
Today, Timbuktu sadly struggles with poverty and the consequences of the Tuareg rebellion. At this point, it is uncertain whether climate and/or military unrest will lead to Timbuktu’s ultimate doom. All that would be left behind is its mythical image as the famed crossroads of the Sahara. In an ironic way, it has again become a legendary, remote, unreachable city.