Timbuktu: History, Location & Facts

Instructor: Lorrine Garrison-Boyd
There's a popular expression some use to describe a long distance and they say that something is, 'as far away as Timbuktu'. Let's look at the history and facts of this African city and see why we hear this popular saying.

A Mysterious Destination

In the early part of the nineteenth century, fortune hunters and geographers from Europe longed to find a city in Africa called Timbuktu. Even the name of this city was intriguing as there are different stories or explanations for its origin. One source indicates that the name Timbuktu derives from the Berber language, a language once spoken by people in North Africa and one of the oldest languages ever recorded in the history of the world. With tin meaning part and buqt meaning a faraway place, TINbuktu became Timbuktu, translated to represent a location at the other end of the world.

Other terms describing Timbuktu include the City of Gold, because it was believed to have streets paved with gold, and The Lost City, because it is situated north of the river Niger and on the southern edge of the Sahara Desert.

In the early nineteenth century, many geographers from Europe were determined to travel to Timbuktu because of its reputation as a place of great wealth. Timbuktu was an unexplored location, and no Europeans had been able to locate the mysterious city.

In 1824, a reward of 10,000 francs was offered by the geographical society in France, to the person of any nation that successfully traveled and returned from Timbuktu. An army officer named Alexander Gordon Laing (originally from Scotland) located the city but was killed by locals and never returned. Two years later, a French explorer took on the same challenge and returned from Timbuktu to claim the prize. A German explorer named Henry Barth is also noted for successfully making this journey to and from Timbuktu and recorded his experiences.

For years European geographers were challenged to not only successfully travel to Timbuktu, but also to return home

A City in the Republic of Mali

Timbuktu, a trading city in central Mali, is still referred to as the most isolated remote location in the world. As a desert town of the Sahara, the city is able to survive by its connection to the Niger River, as well as swamps, lakes, jungles and rainforests. Currently, Timbuktu is known for its brutal climate, limited air service, and can be reached on land only by riverboat, camel, or on foot. Ironically, this once wealthy city is now characterized as an impoverished location having greatly declined in wealth as well as population.

At one time, Timbuktu was thought of as merely a figure of one's imagination or a legend that really didn't exist. But sources indicate that Timbuktu began as a settlement of nomads around 1100. Then the city developed as a popular trading post and a busy port for local tribal groups. With a central, strategic location as well as being uniquely situated geographically, Timbuktu was where people from North Africa and West Africa assembled to use their goods to bargain for gold.

Common commodities traded included gold, books from local Islamic scholars, and salt that was mined in the northern parts of the city. Gemstones, cloth, and slaves were also traded for gold. In the 12th century, Timbuktu had developed into a successful commercial city and also a place of Islamic learning. From the fourteenth century until the seventeenth century, Timbuktu was regarded as one of richest cities commercially and a place where Islamic teaching and learning occurred.

Timbuktu is uniquely situated geographically, north of the Niger River and south of the Sahara Desert

Mansa Musa and the Malian Empire

Early Arabic records indicated that Timbuktu was a central meeting place for merchants. The city had become a major part of the Malian Empire. The influx of economic wealth provided the means for developing libraries, markets, mosques, and schools. Caravans of camels transported goods from West Africa to North Africa.

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