Timbuktu was once legendary … A fabulous city on the southern edge of the Sahara, flushed with gold wealth and revered for its Islamic scholarship.

Sankore mosque timbuktu-mali

Playful kids near the Sankore Madrasah, an Islamic university, this established Timbuktu as a scholarly centre in Africa.

Today Timbuktu is a quiet, dusty, dishevelled outpost amid the Sahara Desert in northern Mali. Beyond a few classic mud mosques and family museums of ancient Islamic manuscripts, there is actually very little left that alludes to the grandeur of this once great city.

Once part of various African Islamic empires, Timbuktu flourished between the 13-15th centuries AD as it stood on a major Trans-Saharan trade route. But it wasn’t until the 19th century that European explorers actually reached Timbuktu. Yet when they got there they were disappointed as Timbuktu’s Golden Age was well past; many explorers never returned home to confirm its existence or gain the fame of being there first.



Historic descriptions of the city had been around since Leo Africanus’s account in the first half of the 16th century, and they prompted several European individuals and organizations to make 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. The earliest of their sponsored explorers was a young Scottish adventurer named Mungo Park, who made two trips in search of the Niger River and 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 findings.

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 Scotsman Gordon Laing arrived in August 1826 but was killed the following month by local Muslims who were fearful of European intervention. The Frenchman René Caillié arrived in 1828 travelling alone, disguised as a Muslim; he was able to safely return and claim the prize.

ORIGINS of Timbuktu :: It was established by the nomadic Tuareg as early as the 10th century. Its name is made up of: tin which means place and buktu, the name of an old woman known for her honesty, who once lived in the region. The two terms ended up fusing into one word, giving the settlement the name of Tinbuktu – which later became Timbuktu.

Travels in Mali – 2007

Join the journey !


Thank you for subscribing.

Something went wrong.