Where Is Timbuktu? What Is the History of Timbuktu

(Last Updated On: November 5, 2019)
Where Is Timbuktu?

When the topic of ancient cities comes up, a few that come to mind are Athens, Rome, and Jerusalem. But have you ever heard of Timbuktu? You might recall it as the place your parents promised to ship you off to if you didn’t behave. But there is a lot more to know about this influential city.

Located in Mali, Timbuktu is an ancient city that today serves as the capital of the Tombouctou Region — one of Mali’s eight administrative regions. But before we dive deeper into Timbuktu and discover the many aspects that make it unique, let’s take a closer look at the country itself and explore a little bit about Mali.

Where is Mali?

Mali is a landlocked country located in Western Africa. It’s bordered by seven countries — Niger, Guinea, Senegal, Burkina Faso, Côte d’Ivoire, Mauritania, and Algeria. The land covers roughly 480,000 square miles (1.24 million square kilometers), making it similar in size to South Africa and Angola. As of 2019, Mali had an estimated population of 19.82 million people, with the most populous city being its capital, Bamako. The official language of Mali is French, but 80% of citizens speak Bambara, and there are more than 40 other African languages spoken in the country.

If you’re wondering what “landlocked” means, click here to find out!

Where is Timbuktu?

Now that we’ve learned a little more about Mali, let’s pivot back to our city of focus. 

Timbuktu is located in the Southern part of the Tombouctou Region of Mali, a few miles from the Niger River. Situated along the southern edge of the Sahara Desert, the city is considered to have a desert climate, which means the weather is extremely hot and dry throughout much of the year. However, rains do typically come in the summer months, leading to flooding in the region that can last into winter.

Timbuktu on a Map.

A Short History of Timbuktu

Seasonal nomads had long inhabited the region around Timbuktu before it became a permanent settlement around the 12th century AD. It’s location at the crossroads of desert and river made it an ideal center for trading. As the settlement gradually grew, it would come to be incorporated into the Mali empire sometime in the late 13th century.

By the 14th century, Timbuktu had become a major hub for the trade of gold, salt, ivory, and slaves. This prosperity ushered in the construction of grand mosques and an Islamic university. Numerous scholars flocked to the city, and Timbuktu became a center of Islamic culture and learning. By 1450, its population had reached about 100,000.

In 1468, Timbuktu was conquered by the Songhai, and came under the rule of the Songhai empire. But the city would continue its path towards commercial and intellectual development. And merchants from across North Africa continued to flock to the city to buy, trade, and sell goods. 

In 1591, Timbuktu was captured by Morocco, and the city would begin a gradual decline. Scholars were arrested and exiled. And those left in command of Timbuktu were ill equipped to defend the city, leading to various attacks from neighboring kingdoms.

Timbuktu In European Lore

Rumors of Timbuktu’s fabled riches had been around in Europe for hundreds of years, popularized in part by the writings of such authors as Leo Africanus. While many of the finer details of his writing were ignored, it was the reported wealth of this inaccessible desert city which really captured the imaginations of those living in Europe. 

European explorers would finally reach Timbuktu in the 19th century. The first recorded European to reach the city was the Scottish explorer Gordon Laing in 1826. The locals were suspicious of him, however, and he never made it back alive.

In 1828, French explorer René-Auguste Caillié reached Timbuktu disguised as an Arab. After two weeks, he became the first European explorer to return from Timbuktu with firsthand knowledge of the city. 

After people began visiting Timbuktu, it became clear that the fabled riches of the city were just that…fables. And so Timbuktu would shift from being seen as a mythical golden city (Africa’s “El Dorado”, if you will) to a more mysterious and distant place. And since at least the mid-19th century, Timbuktu has served as a metaphor for a far off place in Western culture.

Can you name the countries that border Mali? Take the quiz to find out!

Timbuktu Today

Timbuktu was in a rather desolate condition when it was captured by the French in 1894. Mali would remain under French control until after World War II, when Charles de Gaulle began granting the colony more autonomy. 

In 1960, Timbuktu would become part of the newly independent Republic of Mali. However, the city would experience much decline in the years to follow. The canal that once linked the city to the Niger River filled with sand from the encroaching desert, and the city was plagued by severe droughts in the 1970s and 1980s. 

In the 1990s, amidst continued sand encroachment, efforts were taken to restore the city’s three great mosques. However, despite all efforts to improve the city, Timbuktu remains an impoverished town. And while much of this suffering has come from desertification, the region has also seen much conflict. Timbuktu has been attacked multiple times on several different occasions by a variety of fundamentalist groups.

While Timbuktu remains a city of great spiritual significance, today it faces many issues common in our changing world.

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Mark Heald is the Managing Editor of Sporcle.com. He enjoys spending time with his family, traveling, and bemoaning the fact the Sonics left Seattle.