The Legendary City of Timbuktu in Mali, Africa

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.

Where Is Timbuktu?

Located near the edge of the Niger River, Timbuktu is situated near the middle of Mali in Africa. Timbuktu had a 2014 population of approximately 15,000 (the recent drop more in half due to its 2012–2013 occupation by Al Qaeda). The 2014 estimate is the latest data available.

The Legend of Timbuktu

Timbuktu was founded by nomads in the 12th century, and it rapidly became a major trading depot for the caravans of the Sahara Desert.

During the 14th 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 Battuta 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 15th 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 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 Legend Grows

A 1526 visit to Timbuktu by a Muslim from Grenada, Spain, Leo Africanus, told of Timbuktu as a typical trading outpost. Still, the mythical legend of its wealth persisted.

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 Sahara Desert. Known wells would be dry or would not provide enough water upon an expedition's arrival.

Mungo Park, a Scottish doctor, attempted a trip to Timbuktu in 1805. Unfortunately, his expedition team of dozens of Europeans and natives all died or abandoned the expedition, 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. His body was never found.

In 1824, the Geographical Society of Paris offered a reward of 7,000 francs and a gold medal valued at 2,000 francs to the first European who could visit Timbuktu and return to tell the 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 13 months to reach Timbuktu. On the way, he was attacked by the ruling Tuareg nomads, was shot and cut by swords, and broke his arm. He recovered from the vicious attack and made his way to Timbuktu, arriving in August 1826.

Laing 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, he 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 went 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. During the interim, he was feared dead by many. Barth gained fame through the publication of five volumes of his experiences. As with previous explorers to Timbuktu, Barth found the city quite the anticlimax.

French Colonial Control

In the late 1800s, France took over the Mali region and decided to take Timbuktu away from the control of the violent Tuareg. The French military was sent to occupy Timbuktu in 1894. Under the command of Major Joseph Joffre (later a famous World War I general), Timbuktu was occupied and became the site of a French fort.

Communication between Timbuktu and France was difficult, making the city an unhappy place for a soldier to be stationed. Nonetheless, the area around Timbuktu was well protected, 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 an inaugural air flight from Algiers to Timbuktu in 1920 was lost. Eventually, a successful airstrip was established; however, 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, 32,000 people resided in the city. In 2009, Mali statistical office census estimates put the population at more than 54,000.

In 1988, Timbuktu was designated a United Nations World Heritage Site, and efforts were underway to preserve and protect the city and especially its centuries-old mosques. In 2012, due to regional fighting, the city was placed on the UNESCO List of World Heritage in Danger, where it still remains in 2018.

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Rosenberg, Matt. "Timbuktu." ThoughtCo, Jul. 30, 2021, thoughtco.com/where-is-timbuktu-1433600. Rosenberg, Matt. (2021, July 30). Timbuktu. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/where-is-timbuktu-1433600 Rosenberg, Matt. "Timbuktu." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/where-is-timbuktu-1433600 (accessed June 8, 2023).