Chiini: Tumbutu; ) is a city in Tombouctou
Region, in the West African
nation of Mali.
- For other uses, see Timbuktu .
was made prosperous by Mansa Musa
for his pilgramage to Mecca), tenth mansa
) of the Mali
. It is home to the prestigious Sankore University
and other madrasas
, and was an intellectual and spiritual
capital and centre for the propagation of Islam
15th and 16th centuries. Its three great mosques, Djingareyber, Sankore and Sidi Yahya, recall Timbuktu's golden age.
Although continuously restored, these monuments are today under
threat from desertification
Populated by Songhay
people, Timbuktu is about
15 km north of the Niger River
It is also
at the intersection of an east–west and a north–south Trans-Saharan trade route across the
Sahara to Araouane.
important historically (and still is today) as an entrepot for rock-salt originally from Taghaza, now from
Its geographical setting made it a natural meeting point for nearby
west African populations and nomadic
peoples from the north. Its long history as a trading outpost that
linked west Africa with Berber, Arab, and Jewish
traders throughout north Africa, and thereby indirectly with
traders from Europe
, has given it a fabled
status, and in the West it was for long a metaphor for exotic,
distant lands: "from here to Timbuktu."
Timbuktu's long-lasting contribution to Islamic and world
civilization is scholarship
Timbuktu is assumed to have had one of the first universities
in the world. Local scholars and
collectors still boast an impressive collection of ancient Greek texts
from that era.
By the 14th century
, important books
were written and copied in Timbuktu, establishing
the city as the centre of a significant written tradition in
Timbuktu was established by the nomadic Tuareg
as early as the 10th century. According to a
, its name is made up of:
(pronounced "tain") which means "well" and
, the name of an old Malian woman known for her
honesty and who once upon a time lived in the region. Tuareg
and other travelers would entrust this woman
with any belongings for which they had no use on their return trip
to the north. Thus, when a Tuareg, upon returning to his home, was
asked where he had left his belongings, he would answer: "I left
them at Tin Buktu", meaning Buktu's well. The two terms ended up
fusing into one word, thus giving the city the name of
which later became Timbuktu
the French orientalist René Basset forwarded a more plausible
etymology: in the Berber languages
"buqt" means "far away", so "Tin-Buqt(u)" means a place almost at
the other end of the world, i.e. the Sahara.
Although Tuaregs founded Timbuktu, it was only as a seasonal
settlement. It was merchants from Djenne who set up
the various markets and built permanent
dwellings in the town, establishing the site as a meeting place for
people traveling by camel.
Like its predecessor, Tiraqqa
, a neighboring trading city of the Wangara
, Timbuktu grew to great wealth
because of its key role in trans-Saharan trade
other goods by the Tuareg, Mandé
merchants, transferring goods
coming from the Islamic
north to boats on the Niger. Thus if the Sahara functioned as a
sea, Timbuktu was a major port. It became a key city in several
successive empires: the Ghana Empire
the Mali Empire
, and the Songhai
, the second occupations
beginning when the empires overthrew Tuareg leaders who had
regained control. It reached its peak in the early 16th century, but its capture in 1591 by a band
of Moroccan adventurers was not the start so much as a symptom of
the crumbling of the ancient economy with Portuguese goods that came instead from the river's mouth
(Braudel pp 434–35).
Tales of Timbuktu's fabulous wealth helped prompt European exploration
of the west coast of Africa. Among
the earliest descriptions of Timbuktu are those of Leo Africanus
Perhaps most famous among the accounts written about Timbuktu is
that by Leo Africanus
. Born al-Hasan
ibn Muhammad ibn Ahmad al-Wazzan, Leo Africanus was an ambassador
serving the Sultan of Fez
1518 he was captured by Christian pirates and delivered to the Pope
in Rome. There he converted from Islam to Christianity and wrote a
book on Africa. Describing Timbuktu when the Songhai empire
was at its height, the English
edition of his book includes the description:
The rich king of Tombuto hath many plates and scepters
of gold, some whereof weigh 1300 pounds.
He hath always 3000 horsemen ...
(and) a great store of doctors, judges, priests, and
other learned men, that are bountifully maintained at the king's
cost and charges.
According to Leo Africanus, there were abundant supplies of locally
produced corn, cattle, milk and butter, though there were neither
gardens nor orchards surrounding the city.
Shabeni was a merchant from Tetouan, Morocco who was
captured and ended up in England where he
told his story of how as a child of 14, around 1787, he had gone
with his father to Timbuktu.
A version of his story is
related by James Grey Jackson
his book An Account of Timbuctoo and Hausa
On the east side of the city of Timbuctoo, there is a
large forest, in which are a great many elephants.
The timber here is very large.
The trees on the outside of the forest are
remarkable...they are of such a size that the largest cannot be
girded by two men.
They bear a kind of berry about the size of a walnut,
in clusters consisting of from ten to twenty berries.
Shabeeny cannot say what is the extent of this forest,
but it is very large.
Centre of learning
During the early 15th century, a number of Islamic institutions
were erected. The most famous of these is the Sankore mosque, also
known as the University of Sankore.
While Islam was practiced in the cities, the local rural majority
were non-Muslim traditionalists. Often the leaders were nominal
Muslims in the interest of economic advancement while the masses
University of Sankore
Sankore, as it stands now, was built in 1581 AD (= 989 A. H.) on a
much older site (probably from the 13th or 14th century) and became
the center of the Islamic scholarly community in Timbuktu. The
"University of Sankore" was a madrassah
very different in organization from the universities of medieval Europe
. It was
composed of several entirely independent schools or colleges, each
run by a single master or imam
associated themselves with a single teacher, and courses took place
in the open courtyards of mosque complexes or private residences.
The primary focus of these schools was the teaching of the Qur'an
, although broader instruction in fields such
as logic, astronomy, and history also took place. Scholars wrote
their own books as part of a socioeconomic model based on
scholarship. The profit made by buying and selling of books was
only second to the gold-salt trade. Among the most formidable
scholars, professors and lecturers was Ahmed
– a highly distinguished historian frequently quoted in
The manuscripts and libraries of Timbuktu
The most outstanding treasure at Timbuktu are the 100,000 manuscripts
kept by the great families from the
town.. These manuscripts, some of them dated from pre-Islamic times
and 12th century, have been preserved as family secrets in the town
and in other villages nearby. The majority were written in Arabic
, by wise men
coming from the Mali Empire
contents are didactic, especially in the subjects of astronomy
. More recent manuscripts deal with
(with unique records such as the
from the 16th century or the Tarikh al-Sudan
by Abderrahman al-Sadi on
Sudanic history in the 17th century), religion
The Ahmed Baba Institute
(Cedrab), founded in 1970 by the government of Mali, with
collaboration of Unesco, holds some of these manuscripts in order
to restore and digitize them. More than 18,000 manuscripts have
been collected by the Ahmed Baba
but there are an estimated 300,000-700,000 manuscripts in the
The collection of ancient manuscripts at the University of Sankore
and other sites
around Timbuktu document the magnificence of the institution, as
well as the city itself, while enabling scholars to reconstruct the
past in fairly intimate detail. Dating from the 16th to the 18th
centuries, these manuscripts cover every aspect of human endeavor
and are indicative of the high level of civilization attained by
West Africans at the time. In testament to the glory of Timbuktu,
for example, a West African
states that "Salt comes from the north, gold from the south, but
the word of God and the treasures of wisdom come from
From 60 to
80 private libraries in the town have been preserving these
manuscripts: Mamma Haidara Library; Fondo Kati Library (with
approximately 3,000 records from Andalusian origin, the oldest dated from 14th and 15th
centuries); Al-Wangari Library; and Mohamed Tahar Library, among
These libraries are considered part of the "African Ink Road
" that stretched from West
Africa connecting North Africa and East Africa. At one time there
were 120 libraries with manuscripts in Timbuktu and surrounding
areas. There are more than one million objects
preserved in Mali with an additional 20 million in other parts of
Africa, the largest concentration of which is in Sokoto, Nigeria, although
the full extent of the manuscripts is unknown. During the colonial
era efforts were made to conceal the documents after a number of
entire libraries were taken to Paris, London and other
parts of Europe.
Some manuscripts were buried underground,
while others were hidden in the desert or in caves. Many are still
hidden today. The United States Library of
Congress microfilmed a sampling of
the manuscripts during an exhibition there in June 2003.
February 2006 a joint South African/Malian effort began
investigating the Timbuktu manuscripts to assess the level of
scientific knowledge in Timbuktu and in the other regions of West
Invasion and decline
began to decline after explorers and slavers from Portugal and then other European countries landed in West
Africa, providing an alternative to the slave market of Timbuktu
and the trade route through the world's
largest desert. The decline was hastened when it was invaded
by a Moroccan army led by Morisco
mercenaries armed with European-style guns in the service of the
Moroccan sultan in 1591.
A German Map from 1855
Many European individuals and organizations made great efforts to
discover Timbuktu and its fabled riches. In 1788 a group of titled
Englishmen formed the African
with the goal of finding the city and charting the
course of the Niger River
. The earliest
of their sponsored explorers was a young Scottish adventurer named
, who made two trips
in search of the Niger River
Timbuktu (departing first in 1795 and then in 1805). It is believed that
Park was the first Westerner to have reached the city, but he died
in modern day Nigeria without having the chance to report his
In 1824, the Paris-based Société de Géographie
offered a 10,000 franc prize to the first non-Muslim
to reach the town and return with information
about it. The Briton Gordon
arrived in September 1826 but was killed shortly after by
local Muslims who were fearful of European discovery and
intervention. The Frenchman René
arrived in 1828 traveling alone disguised as Muslim; he
was able to safely return and claim the prize.
Timbuktu seen from a distance by
Heinrich Barth's party, Sept.
African-American sailor, claimed to have visited the city in 1811
as a slave after his ship wrecked off the African coast.
gave an account to the British consul in Tangier, Morocco in 1813.
He published his account in an 1816
book, The Narrative of Robert Adams, a Barbary Captive
(still in print as of 2006), but doubts remain about his account.
Three other Europeans reached the city before 1890: Heinrich Barth
in 1853 and the German
with the Spanish Cristobal Benítez
About 60 British merchant seamen were held prisoner there during
the Second World War, and during May 1942 two of them, William
Soutter and John Graham of the British SS Allende
there and are buried in the European cemetery - surely the most
remote British war graves tended by the Commonwealth War Graves
In the 1990s, Timbuktu came under attack from Tuareg people hoping
to build their own state. The Tuareg Rebellion
symbolically ended with a burning of weapons
in the town in 1996.
Street Scene - Caille House
Timbuktu is an impoverished town, although its reputation makes it
a tourist attraction to the point where it even has an
international airport (Timbuktu
A typical street scene at Timbuktu,
Mali, with omnipresent bread-baking ovens
It is one of the eight regions of Mali
, and is home to the region's
local governor. It is the sister city to Djenné, also in Mali.
The 1998 census listed its
population at 31,973, up from 31,962 in the census of 1987.
is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, listed since
In 1990, it was added to the list of World Heritage Sites in
due to the threat of desert
A program was set up to preserve the site and, in 2005, it was
taken off the list of endangered sites. However, new constructions
are threatening the ancient mosques, a UNESCO Committee
Timbuktu was one of the major stops during Henry Louis Gates
special "Wonders of the
African World". Gates visited with Abdel Kadir Haidara, curator of
the Mamma Haidara Library
together with Ali Ould Sidi
Cultural Mission of Mali
It is thanks to Gates that an Andrew Mellon Foundation grant
was obtained to finance the construction of the library's
facilities, later inspiring the work of the Timbuktu Manuscripts Project
Unfortunately, no practising book artists exist in Timbuktu
although cultural memory of book artisans is still alive, catering
to the tourist trade. The town is home to an institute dedicated to
preserving historic documents from the region, in addition to two
small museums (one of them the house in which the great German
explorer Heinrich Barth spent six months in 1853-54), and the
symbolic Flame of Peace
monument commemorating the
reconciliation between the Tuareg and the government of Mali.
of the city as mysterious or mythical has survived to the present
day in other countries: a survey among 150 young Britons in 2006 found 34% did not believe the town existed,
while the other 66% considered it "a mythical place". "Search
on for Timbuktu's twin" BBC News, 18 October 2006. Retrieved 28
This idea of mystique has also found its way into
popular culture: Donald Duck
Timbuktu as a safe haven, and a Donald Duck comic subseries is
situated in the city. In the 1970 Disney animated feature The Aristocats
Edgar the butler places the
cats in a trunk which he plans to send to Timbuktu. It is mistakenly
noted to be in Equatorial Guinea.
is marked by mud mosques
which are said to have inspired Antoni
. These include
Other attractions include a museum
gardens and a water tower
Image:Timbuktu Street Scene with Sankore Mosque.jpg|Street Scene
with Sankore MosqueImage:Timbuktu Street Scene 2.jpg|Street
SceneImage:Timbuktu Street Scene 3.jpg|Street MarketImage:Sahara
Desert Tribal Camp.jpg|Sahara Desert Tribal
CampImage:Timbuktu_cemetery.jpg|CemeteryImage:Timbuktu Street Scene
1.jpg|Street Scene - Children
The main language of Timbuktu is a Songhay
language called Koyra Chiini
, spoken by over 80% of
residents. Smaller groups, numbering 10% each before many were
expelled during the Tuareg/Arab rebellion of 1990-1994, speak
Arabic and Tamashek
The weather is hot and dry throughout much of the year with plenty
of sunshine. Average daily maximum temperatures in the hottest
months of the year - May and June - exceed 40°C. Temperatures are
slightly cooler, though still very hot, from July through
September, when practically all of the meager annual rainfall
occurs. Only the winter months of December and January have average
daily maximum temperatures below 32°C.
Famous people connected with Timbuktu
- Ali Farka Toure (1939–2006) Born
in Kanau, in the Timbuktu region.
- Heinrich Barth (1821-1865) German
traveller and scholar and one of the first Europeans to investigate
- Bernard Peter de Neumann, GM
(1917–1972) "The Man From Timbuctoo". Held prisoner of war there
along with other members of the crew of the Criton during
- Ibn Battuta (1304-1368) Made a
famous journey to Timbuktu, along with many others throughout his
- Mungo Park (1771 - ~1806)
Was the first European to reach the Niger River. On his second
journey down the river he passed by Timbuktu but was not able to
make it to the city due to local aggression. He drowned in the
Bussa rapids a few hundred miles further down river.
- Mardochée abi Serour (merchant), born circa 1930 in Aqqa (a
Saharian oasis). Traded merchandises between Mogador (presently
Essaouira) and Timbuktu, and even owned a house in Timbuktu.
Blaenllechau, Wales, United
Hay-on-Wye, Wales, United
Tempe, Arizona, United
- Timbuktu — World Heritage (Unesco.org)
- Timbuktu. (2007). Encyclopædia Britannica. Chicago:
- Okolo Rashid. Legacy of Timbuktu: Wonders of the Written Word
Exhibit - International Museum of Muslim Cultures
- History of Timbuktu, Mali - Timbuktu
- Early History of Timbuktu - The History Channel
- For biographical information on Leo Africanus, see Natalie
Zemon Davis, "Trickster Travels: A Sixteenth-Century Muslim Between
Worlds" (Hill and Wang: New York) 2006.
- Un patrimoine inestimable en danger : les
manuscrits trouvés à Tombouctou, par Jean-Michel Djian dans
Le Monde diplomatique d'août
- Reclaiming the Ancient Manuscripts of
- Curtis Abraham, " Stars of the Sahara," New Scientist,
18 August 2007: 37-39
- Calhoun, Warren Glenn; From Here to Timbuktu, p. 273
- UNESCO July 10, 2008.
- Donald Duck Timboektoe subseries (Dutch) on the
C.O.A. Search Engine (I.N.D.U.C.K.S.). Retrieved d.d. October
- Notes on The Aristocats at the International Movie Database.
Retrieved d.d. October 24, 2009
- African star Ali Farka Toure dies, BBC News
d.d. March 7, 2006. Retrieved online from BBC Online d.d.
September 22, 2009.
- Heinrich Barth, Travels and Discoveries in North and Central
Africa; being a Journal of an Expedition undertaken under the
auspices of H.B.M.'s Government in the years 1849-1855,
Volume 1 page 534 (1857). "In the course of my travels,
particularly during my stay in Timbuctu". Retrieved d.d.
September 22, 2009.
- The Daily Express, 10 February 1943. Front Page: The Man
- Ross E. Dunn (2005) The adventures of Ibn Battuta, a Muslim
traveler of the fourteenth century, page 305. Retrieved
d.d. September 22, 2009.
- Larry Brook, Ray Webb (1999) Daily Life in Ancient and Modern
Timbuktu. Retrieved d.d. September 22, 2009.
- Charles de Foucauld, Reconnaissance du Maroc
- Von China bis nach Mali - Chemnitz ist international
Sz Online - 11 December 2003
- . Google books: Volume 1, Volume 2, Volume 3.
- . Google books: Volume 1, Volume 2.
- . Originally published in 1986, ISBN 0-520-05771-6.
- . Pages 272-291 contain a translation into English of Leo
Africanus' descriptions of the Middle Niger, Hausaland and
- . A facsimile of the 1600 English edition. Internet Archive:
Volume 1, Volume 2, Volume 3
- . Link requires subscription to Aluka.
- . Link requires subscription to Aluka. Reissued by Anchor
Books, New York in 1965.
- Braudel, Fernand, 1979 (in
English 1984). The Perspective of the World, vol. III of
Civilization and Capitalism
- Jenkins, Mark, (June 1997) To Timbuktu, ISBN 978-0688115852
William Marrow & Co. Revealing travelogue along the Niger to
- Pelizzo, Riccardo, Timbuktu: A Lesson in Underdevelopment,
Journal of World System Research, vol. 7, n.2, 2001,