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Dictionary Definition

Timbuktu n : a city in central Mali near the Niger river; formerly famous for its gold trade

Extensive Definition

This article is about the Malian city. For other uses, see Timbuktu (disambiguation). Timbuktu (Archaic English: Timbuctoo; Koyra Chiini: Tumbutu; French: Tombouctou) is a city in Tombouctou Region, in the West African nation of Mali. 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 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. 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, resp. the Sahara.
Although Tuaregs founded Timbuktu, it was merchants (mostly from Djenne) who set up the various markets and built permanent dwellings in the town, establishing the site as a meeting place for people traveling by camel. Like its predecessor, Tiraqqa, a neighboring trading city of the Wangara, Timbuktu grew to great wealth because of its key role in trans-Saharan trade in gold, ivory, slaves, salt and other goods by the Tuareg, Mandé and Fulani merchants, transferring goods from caravans coming from the Islamic north to boats on the Niger. Thus if the Sahara functioned as a sea, Timbuktu was a major port. It became a key city in several successive empires: the Ghana Empire, the Mali Empire from 1324, and the Songhai Empire from 1468, the second occupations beginning when the empires overthrew Tuareg leaders who had regained control. It reached its peak in the early 16th century, but its capture in 1591 by a band of Moroccan adventurers was not the start so much as a symptom of the crumbling of the ancient economy with Portuguese goods that came instead from the river's mouth (Braudel pp 434–35).
The leaders of the Songhai kingdom (also spelled Songhay) began expanding their domain along the Niger River. Like the kingdoms of Ghana and Mali that flourished in the region in earlier centuries, Songhai grew powerful because of its control of local trade routes. Timbuktu would soon become the heart of the mighty Songhai Empire. It became wealthy because many merchants traveled trade routes that went through it.

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.
The place name is said to come from a Tuareg woman named Buktu who dug a well in the area where the city stands today; hence "Timbuktu", which means "Buktu's well".

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 – napolean bonaparte 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 Mali Empire. Their contents are didactic, especially in the subjects of astronomy, music, and botany. More recent manuscripts deal on law, sciences and history (with unique records 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 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 Scot 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 poll among 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 into 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

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,
  • Felix DuBois (Original French version) and Diana White (English translation), 1897. Timbuctoo the Mysterious, ISBN-13: 978-1425494278: Kessinger Publishing (May 30, 2006)
timbuktu in Arabic: تمبكتو
timbuktu in Aragonese: Timbuktú
timbuktu in Bambara: Timbuktu
timbuktu in Bosnian: Timbuktu
timbuktu in Bulgarian: Тимбукту
timbuktu in Catalan: Timbuctu
timbuktu in Czech: Timbuktu
timbuktu in Welsh: Tombouctou
timbuktu in Danish: Timbuktu
timbuktu in German: Timbuktu
timbuktu in Spanish: Tombuctú
timbuktu in Esperanto: Timbuktuo
timbuktu in Persian: تیمبوکتو
timbuktu in French: Tombouctou
timbuktu in Korean: 통북투
timbuktu in Croatian: Timbuktu
timbuktu in Indonesian: Timbuktu
timbuktu in Icelandic: Timbúktú
timbuktu in Italian: Timbuktu
timbuktu in Hebrew: טימבוקטו
timbuktu in Georgian: ტიმბუქტუ
timbuktu in Swahili (macrolanguage): Timbuktu
timbuktu in Lithuanian: Timbuktu
timbuktu in Dutch: Timboektoe (stad)
timbuktu in Japanese: トンブクトゥ
timbuktu in Norwegian: Timbuktu
timbuktu in Norwegian Nynorsk: Timbuktu
timbuktu in Low German: Timbuktu
timbuktu in Polish: Timbuktu
timbuktu in Portuguese: Tombuctu
timbuktu in Romanian: Tombouctou
timbuktu in Russian: Тимбукту
timbuktu in Simple English: Timbuktu
timbuktu in Slovak: Timbuktu (mesto)
timbuktu in Serbian: Тимбукту
timbuktu in Finnish: Timbuktu
timbuktu in Swedish: Timbuktu
timbuktu in Vietnamese: Timbuktu
timbuktu in Turkish: Timbuktu
timbuktu in Ukrainian: Тімбукту
timbuktu in Chinese: 廷巴克图

Synonyms, Antonyms and Related Words

China, Darkest Africa, God knows where, Greenland, North Pole, Outer Mongolia, Pago Pago, Pillars of Hercules, Siberia, South Pole, Thule, Tierra del Fuego, Ultima Thule, Yukon, antipodes, frontier, godforsaken place, jumping-off place, nowhere, outback, outer space, outpost, outskirts, pole, the Great Divide, the South Seas, the boondocks, the moon, the sticks, the tullies
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