Original Image: Emilio Labrador
A long time ago, Timbuktu was pretty far from anything else. It still is. Timbuktu is in Mali, Africa, and while there are scattered towns at some distance to the south, to the north is the vast emptiness of the Sahara Desert. The town was initially settled by Tuareg nomads in the 12th century, who found the location was ideal for watering camels in the nearby Niger River and for grazing them when desert temperatures were greatest. Nomadic peoples found it a convenient meeting place and its size grew as more and more trade developed there. Peoples bringing goods from the desert or the interior by land found it a handy place to transfer their products to boats on the river for further transport. Gold from the south was traded for salt from mines to the north and the wealth of Timbuktu increased. Arabs, who began to learn of Timbuktu through the 14th century writings of the famed explorer Ibn Battuta, came to the city bringing a knowledge base that also expanded. By the fifteenth century, the combination of great wealth and scholars turned Timbuktu into a powerful and respected location. Libraries flourished as students of Islam and the sciences came to study and brought more manuscripts.
Timbuktu, Present day Image: Google satellite
Timbuktu was ruled by various groups and leaders but continued to grow in stature as an intellectual center supported by rich trade. All this began to decline after a Moroccan invasion and takeover late in the 16th century, but the legend of Timbuktu persisted and the stories of riches to be found there spread to Europe. This inspired many attempts to reach the fabled locale which ended in death or frustration for the intrepid travellers. Lack of water and passage through unfriendly territory kept Europeans at bay until 1825 when Scottish explorer Gordon Laing reached Timbuktu. He experienced a good deal of injury and difficulty enroute, but found the city to be an unimpressive trade outpost. Making it an especially bad trip, Laing was murdered shortly after starting his return journey. Other fortune-seeking visitors from Europe who followed were similarly disheartened by the city’s decline. The glory days of Timbuktu had passed.
By the late 1800s, Mali was under French rule. They took over Timbuktu and brought peace and order to the area that had been run by Tuaregs unfriendly to other nomadic traders. The French continued to rule the area until Mali declared independence in 1960. Today Timbuktu is still an iconically distant outpost, displaying only a shadow of its former grandeur, but its history is honored by the United Nations which has declared it a World Heritage Site. Unfortunately, in 2012, that designation did little to prevent Islamic extremists from attacking the unique architecture of some of the city’s revered old mud mosques with pickaxes and destroying ancient manuscripts they found unacceptable to their sect. The legend of Timbuktu becomes more a concept and less material as the years go on.