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Timbuktu is a city that is more often than not, so shrouded in mystery and fantasy that it seems just a passing creation of an overactive imagination. But Timbuktu was and is real. For a time, this much-fabled city was even the center of a thriving trade in Africa. During the Dark ages in Europe, Timbuktu was was one of the most advanced cities in the world.

On this website, I hope to shed some light on the mysterious Timbuktu.

The Rise of Timbuktu

Timbuktu was originally established by Tuareg nomads as a seasonal camp 10 km north of the northernmost loop of the Niger River (c.1100 A.D.). Today, Timbuktu falls in the modern-day country of Mali. At its height, Timbuktu laid on the crossroads of three major trade routes between West Africa and Tripoli, Alexandria, and Cairo to the northeast.

Under these conditions, Timbuktu flourished. Probably annexed by the Empire of Mali around 1300, their king, Mansa Musa, built his royal residence, the Madugu, in Timbuktu.

By the 14th century, the gold-salt trade across the Sahara had focused in Timbuktu.

With the merchants from North Africa came muslim scholars to study in Timbuktu. However, when Timbuktu was conquered by Sonni Ali, the first Songhai ruler, they were not quite trusted by their ruler. On the other end of the spectrum, Muhammad I Askia, his successor, took full advantage of the scholars under his reign and used them as advisors on legal and ethical matters.

Under the Songhai

Timbuktu reached its height under the Songhai Kingdom. Its famous university, Sankore, attracted scholars and students from all over the muslim world. Scholars trained in Mecca or Cairo came to teach there. Caravans containing hundreds of camels left almost daily on trade missions to other parts of Africa. Merchants bought and sold gold, slaves, Saharan salt, cloth, and horses.

After the death of Muhammad I Askia in 1528, his sons each "took a turn" at ruling the empire, which gradually declined. Eventually, internal conflicts tore the empire apart, and when the Moroccan army marched through in search of the prosperous gold mines, that was the final blow which eventually killed off the once-great empire.

Timbuktu After the Songhai

Timbuktu has all but dissapeared today. Between the decline of the Songhai Empire, raids from rival groups, and the shifting of trade routes, the population has shrunk to about 20,000 people. However, caravans still depart from the city twice a year and the tourism industry is growing rapidly. Nothing remains of the palace built by Mansa Musa, but the mosque still stands as a reminder of the past.

By the time the Europeans actually reached Timbuktu, it was reduced to little more than a "mass of ill-looking houses made of earth." The French occupied Timbuktu from 1893-1894, but have since lost interest. Today Timbuktu lies in the independent country of Mali. It is accessible by air, but it is far easier to go by boat or camel caravan.


"Timbuktu." Encyclopedia Britannica. June 1998. Caltech. 23 Nov., 1998.

Basil, Davidson. African Kingdoms (New York: Time-Life Books,1966), pp.24, 84-86.

"Timbuktu." Microsoft Encarta. 1994

"Songhai." Microsoft Encarta. 1994

"Songhai Kingdom (1400-1591)." Microsoft Encarta. 1994

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