[tim-buhk-too, tim-buhk-too]
Timbuktu, city (1987 pop. 31,925), central Mali, near the Niger River. Connected with the Niger by a series of canals, Timbuktu is served by the small river port of Kabara. Its salt trade and handicraft industries make it an important meeting place for the nomadic people of the Sahara. Timbuktu was founded (11th cent.) by the Tuareg as a seasonal camp. By the 14th cent., when it was part of the Mali empire (see History under Mali), it had become one of the major commercial centers of the W Sudan region, famous for its gold trade. Under the Songhai empire (15th and 16th cent.) the city was a great Muslim educational center, with more than 100 Qur'anic schools and a university centered at the Sankoré mosque, one of three great mosques there that are outstanding examples of local earthen buildings. Timbuktu was sacked in 1593 by invaders from Morocco and never again recovered its leading position. It was repeatedly conquered by neighboring peoples until it was captured (1894) by the French. In recent years it has been threatened by the desertification of the surrounding region. The Ahmed Baba Center preserves many manuscripts from the Mali and Songhai empires.
Timbuktu (Timbuctoo; Koyra Chiini: Tumbutu; French: Tombouctou) is a city in Tombouctou Region, in the West African nation of Mali. It was made prosperous by Mansa Musa. 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 throughout Africa in the 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. Timbuktu is primarily made of mud.

Timbuktu is populated by Songhay, Tuareg, Fulani, and Mandé people, and 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. It was important historically (and still is today) as an entrepot for rock-salt originally from Taghaza, now from Taoudenni.

Its geographical setting made it a natural meeting point for nearby west African populations and nomadic Berber and Arab 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, with 25,000 students back in the 1400s.. Local scholars and collectors still boast an impressive collection of ancient Greek texts from that era. By the fourteenth century, important books were written and copied in Timbuktu, establishing the city as the centre of a significant written tradition in Africa.


Timbuktu was established by the nomadic Tuareg as early as the 10th century. According to a popular etymology its name is made up of: tin which means "place" and buktu, 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 the place where dame Buktu lived. The two terms ended up fusing into one word, thus giving the city the name of Tinbuktu which later became Timbuktu. However, the French orientalist René Basset forwarded a more plausible translation: 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.

Legendary tales

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, Ibn Battuta and Shabeni.

Leo Africanus

Perhaps most famous among the tales written about Timbuktu is that by Leo Africanus. As a captured renegade who later converted back to Islam from Christianity, following a trip in 1512, when the Songhai empire was at its height he wrote the following:
The rich king of Tombuto hath many plates and sceptres 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 expense.
At the time of Leo Africanus' visit, grass was abundant, providing plentiful milk and butter in the local cuisine, though there were neither gardens nor orchards surrounding the city.


Shabeni was a merchant from Tetuan 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 in his book An Account of Timbuctoo and Hausa, 1820:
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.

Center 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 were traditionalists.

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. Students 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 Baba – a highly distinguished historian frequently quoted in the Tarikh-es-Sudan and other works.

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 most were written in Arabic or Fulani, by wise men coming from the Mali Empire. Their contents are didactic, especially in the subjects of astronomy, music, and botany. More recent manuscripts deal with law, sciences and history (with unique records such as the Tarikh el-Fetash by Mahmoud Kati from the 16th century or the Tarikh es-Sudan by Abderrahman es-Sadi on Sudanic history in the 17th century), religion, trading, etc.

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 centre, but there are an estimated 300,000-700,000 manuscripts in the region.

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 Islamic proverb states that "Salt comes from the north, gold from the south, but the word of God and the treasures of wisdom come from Timbuktu."

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 them. 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. In 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 Africa.

Ravage and decline

The city 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 Morisco mercenaries armed with European-style guns in the service of the Moroccan sultan in 1591.

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 Association with the goal of finding the city and charting the course of the Niger River. 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 Laing arrived in September 1826 but was killed shortly after by local Muslims who were fearful of European discovery and intervention. The Frenchman René Caillié arrived in 1828 traveling alone disguised as Muslim; he was able to safely return and claim the prize.

Robert Adams, an African-American sailor, claimed to have visited the city in 1811 as a slave after his ship wrecked off the African coast. He later 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. Only three other Europeans reached the city before 1890: Heinrich Barth in 1853 and the German Oskar Lenz with the Spanish Cristobal Benítez in 1880.

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 died there and are buried in the European cemetery - surely the most remote British war graves tended by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.

In the 1990s, Timbuktu came under attack from Tuareg people hoping to build their own state. The Tuareg Rebellion was symbolically ended with a burning of weapons in the town in 1996.

Timbuktu today

Today, Timbuktu is an impoverished town, although its reputation makes it a tourist attraction to the point where it even has an international airport (Timbuktu Airport). 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.

Timbuktu is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, listed since 1988. In 1990, it was added to the list of World Heritage Sites in danger due to the threat of desert sands. A program was set up to preserve the site and, in 2005, it was taken off the list of endangered sites.

Timbuktu was one of the major stops during Henry Louis Gates' PBS special "Wonders of the African World". Gates visited with Abdel Kadir Haidara, curator of the Mamma Haidara Library together with Ali Ould Sidi from the 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.

The image 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".


Timbuktu's vernacular architecture is marked by mud mosques, which are said to have inspired Antoni Gaudí. These include

Other attractions include a museum, terraced gardens and a water tower.


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 Hassaniya Arabic and Tamashek.


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 the first European to investigate African history
  • 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 1941-1942.

Sister cities

See also

Further reading

  • Braudel, Fernand, 1979 (in English 1984). The Perspective of the World, vol. III of Civilization and Capitalism
  • Jenkins, Mark, (June 1997) To Timbuktu, ISBN-13: 978-0688115852 William Marrow & Co. Revealing travelogue along the Niger to Timbuktu
  • Pelizzo, Riccardo, Timbuktu: A Lesson in Underdevelopment, Journal of World System Research, vol. 7, n.2, 2001, pp. 265-283, jwsr.ucr.edu/archive/vol7/number2/pdf/jwsr-v7n2-pelizzo.pdf
  • Felix DuBois (Original French version) and Diana White (English translation), 1897. Timbuctoo the Mysterious, ISBN-13: 978-1425494278: Kessinger Publishing (May 30, 2006)

External links


Notes and references

Search another word or see Timbuktuon Dictionary | Thesaurus |Spanish
Copyright © 2015 Dictionary.com, LLC. All rights reserved.
  • Please Login or Sign Up to use the Recent Searches feature