Timbuktu, also spelled TOMBOUCTOU, is a city in the West African nation of Mali. It is historically important as a post on the trans-Saharan caravan route. It is located on the southern edge of the Sahara, about 8 mi (13 km) north of the Niger River. Timbuktu 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 built at that time, using traditional techniques, still remain.
Timbuktu was founded about AD 1100 as a seasonal camp by Tuareg nomads. After it was incorporated within the Mali Empire, probably in the late 13th century, the Mali sultan, Mansa Musam, built a tower for the Great Mosque (Djingereyber) and a royal residence, the Madugu (the former has since been rebuilt many times, and of the latter no trace now remains). 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 again governed by Mali.
In the 14th century Timbuktu became an important focal point of the gold-salt trade. With the influx of North African merchants came the settlement of Muslim scholars. It made little difference that the Tuareg regained control of the city in 1433; they ruled from the desert, and, though they plundered periodically, trade and learning continued to flourish.
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 counsellors. 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 there 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.
The city declined after it was captured by Morocco in 1591. Two years later the city’s scholars were arrested on suspicion of disaffection; some were killed during a struggle, others were exiled to Morocco. The small Moroccan garrisons could not protect the Niger Bend, and Timbuktu was repeatedly attacked and conquered by the Bambara, Fulani, and Tuareg until 1893, when the French captured the city. The French partly restored the city from the desolate condition in which they found it, but no railway or tarmac road ever reached 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, but there is no gold to offer in exchange, and trans-Saharan commerce no longer exists. Although there is air service, the city remains most easily accessible by camel and boat. Islamic learning survives among a handful of aging scholars, and a Lyc e Franco-Arabe teaches Arabic to the younger generation. Pop. (1976) 19,165.