Complete History of Timbuktu

View of Timbuktu, Heinrich Barth (1858)

An ancient city in Mali, Timbuktu, is located 20km north of the Niger River.

Beginning as a temporary settlement, Timbuktu in Mali became a permanent settlement in the 12th century. After a change in trading routes, the town prospered from gold, salt, and ivory trades from several cities and states such as Sijilmassa and Begho of Bonoman.

However, the history of Timbuktu predates the birth of Christ. The city arose from local commerce between boat trade and Saharan pastoralists within the Niger River Delta. The significance of the river prompted descriptions of Timbuktu as ‘a gift of the Niger,’ in analogy to Herodotus’s narration of Egypt as ‘gift of the Nile’


Like other notable Medieval West African towns such as Gao, Djenné, and Dia, Iron Age settlements have been located near Timbuktu, which predates the traditional foundation of the city. Although the collection of thick layers of sand has prevented archaeological excavations itself, some of the neighboring landscape is collapsing and exposing pottery shards on the surface. Excavations have revealed prehistoric tools dating 2500BCE discovered in the area. The tools included a mysterious big fat hand-ax with relatively brittle edges. The ancient humans would have been so sad seeing what happened in the later years.

Recorded Origin

The first mention of Timbuktu is by the Moroccan traveler Ibn Battuta who visited both Kabara and Timbuktu in 1353 when retreating from a stay in the capital of the Mali Empire. Timbuktu was still comparatively trivial, and Battuta immediately moved on to Gao. At the time, both Gao and Timbuktu formed part of the Mali Empire.

Rise of the Mali Empire

Timbuktu was quietly annexed by King Musa I when returning from his journey in 1324 to Mecca. The town became part of the Mali Empire, and Musa I ordered the installation of a royal palace and Djinguereber Mosque. In 1570, Qadi al-Aqib had the mosque taken down two centuries later and rebuilt on a more massive scale.

In 1375, Timbuktu emerged in the Catalan Atlas, showing that it was a commercial center joining the North-African cities and had caught Europe’s recognition. Sad!

Songhai Empire

With the Mali Empire’s control declining in the first half of the 15th century, Timbuktu became comparatively autonomous, although Maghsharan Tuareg had a commanding position. During this period, it was managed by the Tuareg Akil Akamalwa. Thirty years later, the growing Songhai Empire extended, occupying Timbuktu in 1469. The city was led, consecutively, by Sunni Baru (1492–1493), Sunni Ali Ber (1468–1492) and Askia Mohammad I (1493–1528). Although Sunni Ali Ber was in critical conflict with Timbuktu after its triumph, Askia Mohammad I established a golden age for both the Songhai Empire and Timbuktu through an efficient central and regional administration and allotted sufficient space for the city’s commercial centers to prosper.

Merchants from Awjilah, Ghadames, and many other North Africa cities met in Timbaktu to buy gold and slaves (medieval era was the worst) in exchange for salt, cloth, and horses. The leadership of the Empire stayed in the Askia dynasty until 1591, when civil wars undermined the dynasty’s grip and led to a drop of prosperity in the town.

Moroccan conquest

After the Battle of Tondibi, the city was seized on 30 May 1591 by an army of mercenaries, dubbed the Arma. The Saadi ruler of Morocco sent them and was led by Judar Pasha in search of gold mines. The Arma caused the end of an era of autonomy. The following period brought intellectual and economic decline.

In 1593, Ahmad I al-Mansur cited ‘disloyalty’ as an excuse for arrest, and consequently exiling or killing, many of Timbuktu’s scholars, including Ahmad Baba. The downfall of this glorious city began.

European explorers

Disguised as a Muslim, René Caillié was one of the first non-Muslims to enter the city of Timbuktu.

Rumors of the city had been around in Europe. It provoked many Europeans to make all-embracing efforts to discover Timbuktu and its mythical riches. In 1824, the Paris-based Société de Géographie proposed a 10,000 franc prize to the first non-Muslim to enter the city and come back with information about it. The Scotsman Gordon Laing arrived in Timbuktu in August 1826 but was beheaded the next month by local Muslims afraid of European invasion. The Frenchman René Caillié came in 1828, traveling alone, disguised as a Muslim; he was able to securely return and claim the prize. The french colonization began.

French colonial rule

After the scramble for Africa had been finalized in the Berlin Conference, the land between the Miltou and 14th meridian, South-West Chad, became French territory. It was surrounded in the south by a line running from Say, Niger to Baroua. Although the Timbuktu region was now French in name, the policy of useful occupation required France to hold control in those areas assigned, e.g., by signing agreements with local chiefs, setting up a government, and making use of the region economically, before the claim would be conclusive. On 15 December 1893, by then long past its prime, the city was invaded and absorbed by a small group of French soldiers, led by Lieutenant Gaston Boiteux.

Plan published by Félix Dubois in 1896

Timbuktu became part of Soudan Français (French Sudan), a colony of France. The territory was reorganized, and the name changed many times during the French colonial period. In 1899 French Sudan was divided, and Timbuktu became part of Middle Niger and Upper Senegal. In 1902 the name became Niger and Senegambia, and in 1904 this was replaced again with Upper Senegal and Niger (Haut-Sénégal et Niger). This temporary name was used until 1920 when it was again replaced with French Sudan.

WW II and Independence

During World War II, numerous legions were recruited in French Soudan, with many coming from Timbuktu, to assist general Charles de Gaulle fight southern Vichy France and Nazi-occupied France.

After WW II, the French administration under Charles de Gaulle granted autonomu to the colony. After an era as part of the short-lived Mali Federation, the Republic of Mali was declared on 22 September 1960. Post 19 November 1968, a new constitution was founded in 1974, making Mali a single-party state.

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