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08 - 15 August 2007 
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History of Timbuktu

Located on the southern edge of the Sahara north of the Niger River, Timbuktu or Tombouctous is a city in the West African nation of Mali. It was a centre for the expansion of Islam, an intellectual and spiritual capital at the end of the Mandingo Askia dynasty (1493-1591) and home to a prestigious Koranic university. Three great mosques Djingareyber, Sankore and Sidi Yahya, which were built then using traditional techniques, still remain.

Founded about AD 1100 as a seasonal camp by Tuareg nomads, the city was incorporated within the Mali Empire in the late 13th century. Mansa Musam, the Mali sultan, built a tower for the Great Mosque (Djingereyber) and a royal residence, the Madugu. Shortly after this, the city was annexed by the Mossi kingdom of Yatenga, but when the North African traveller Ibn Battutah visited in 1353, he found it being governed by Mali.  

In the 14th century it became an important focal point of the gold-salt trade. With the influx of North African merchants came the settlement of Muslim scholars. In 1433, the Tuareg regained control of the city. They ruled from the desert.  

In 1468 Timbuktu was conquered by Sonni 'Ali, the Songhai ruler. He was generally ill-disposed to the city's Muslim scholars, but his successor--the first ruler of the new Askia dynasty, Muhammad I Askia of Songhai (reigned 1493-1528)--reversed the policy and used the scholarly elite as legal and moral counselors. During the Askia period (1493-1591) Timbuktu was at the height of its commercial and intellectual development. Merchants from Wadan, Tuwat, Ghudamis (Ghadames), Augila, and the cities of Morocco gathered here to buy gold and slaves in exchange for the Saharan salt of Taghaza and for North African cloth and horses. The city's scholars, many of whom had studied in Mecca or Egypt, attracted students from a wide area.  

When the city was captured by Morocco in 1591, it declined. The small Moroccan garrisons could not protect the Niger Bend, leading to the city being attacked and conquered by the Bambara, Fulani, and Tuareg. In 1893, the French captured the city and partly restored it. In 1960 it became part of the newly independent Republic of Mali.

Timbuktu is now an administrative centre of Mali. Small salt caravans from Taoudenni still arrive in winter. Although there is air service, the city remains most easily accessible by camel and boat. Islamic learning survives among a handful of aging scholars. 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 is populated by Songhay, Tuareg, Fulani, and Mandé people. It is an intersection of an east–west and a north–south Trans-Saharan trade across the Sahara to Araouane.  

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. However, a program was set up to preserve the site. In 2005, it was taken off the list of endangered sites. 


By Purity Njeru
Ms. Njeru is an African Executive staff writer

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