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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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".