Mosque in Timbuktu

During the Empire of the Mali, Timbuktu was a major stop on the trans-Saharan route and a thriving centre of commerce. Its fortunes began to fall when the monopoly on the trans-Saharan route was broken and gradually the city was abandoned and left to the desert, thus acquiring its reputation as an inaccessible and remote outpost. It is in fact rather difficult to reach although not quite as impossible as legend would have it.

Timbuktu was founded (11th cent.) by the Tuareg as a seasonal camp. By the 14th cent, when it was part of the Mali empire, it had become one of the major commercial centers of the W Sudan region, famous for its gold trade. Under the Songhai empire (15th and 16th cent.) the city was a great Muslim educational center, with more than 100 Qur’anic schools and a university centered at the Sankor? mosque. Timbuktu was sacked in 1593 by invaders from Morocco and never again recovered its leading position. It was repeatedly conquered by neighboring peoples until it was captured (1894) by the French.

Timbuktu is smack dab in the middle of desert surrounded by nothing except more desert. Getting there may be the best part of it because once you’re there you may find that it doesn’t have one hell of a lot to offer apart from sand, and that it has plenty of. Sand is piling up on the outskirts of the city and you now have to step down from street level to get into many of the houses.

Timbuktu has three of the oldest mosques in the world that you might consider visiting although the only thing going for them is their age. They’re not particularly interesting or in good repair. The inappropriately named Grand March? is in the Old Section of the city, but it’s not very large and doesn’t sell many things. Despite the lack of major monuments, Timbuktu does retain a faded sense of mystery and enigma and has a feel unlike that of any other town along the Niger.

The best way to get to Timbuktu is by river, either by passenger boat or pinasse. If the river is too low for boats you can also take a bus or plane from Bamako. Timbuktu is 690km (430mi) from Bamako.