The city of Timbuktu, which brings to mind the exoticism of the past as much as lost cartoon characters, was originally established by Tuareg nomads around 1100. It was placed to connect those travelers and traders who came across the dessert by camel and those who came up the river by cargo canoe. Exotic items from West Africa, like ostrich feathers, ivory and gold were traded for rarities from the Mediterranean like cloth, weapons and horses.
The outpost prospered and by the 12th century was renowned throughout West and North Africa and Arabia. At the height of its glory, Timbuktu was a rich, populous and academic city, and of major importance to the Mali and then the Songhai empires.
In 1324, Emperor Kankou of Mali went on a pilgrimage to Mecca, crossing the Sahara with a 60 000 strong retinue and 100 camel loads of gold dust weighing 300 pounds each. Needless to say, this caused quite the stir in Cairo and upset the gold market for years to come. Askia Muhammed of Songhai, Timbuktu’s greatest monarch, led an even bigger caravan in 1495, this time carrying 300 000 pieces of gold. It is easy to see why the city of Timbuktu became legendary for its wealth and why greedy eyes might have turned its way.
In 1591, the city of Timbuktu was taken by Moroccan musketeers. They killed the rulers and exiled the scholars. The city did anything but well under the new rulers and fell into steep decline. Trade could not be maintained and culture died away. In reality Timbuktu slipped into poverty, but at this time the myth of Timbuktu was born.
In 1829, English poet Arthur Henry Hallam wrote:
Thou fairy city, which the desert mound
Encompasseth, thou alien from the mass
Of human guilt, I would not wish thee found!
Perchance thou art too pure…
Many an adventurer died trying to find Timbuktu.
Today, Timbuktu, which lies in modern day Mali in north wester Africa, is known as Tombouctou. It is a poor provincial town, surviving (barely) on a struggling salt trade and small amounts of tourism. It can be reached by boat (after the rainy season in mid-October until May, when the river is at its highest) from Bamako. It can also be reached by truck, plane and, time pending, camel
Ali Farka Toure, who comes from the neighboring city of Niafounke, recorded a Grammy winning album called Talking Timbuktu with Ry Cooder, in 1994.
Source for most of the info in this WU from an article called Talking Timbuktu by Keith Mundy, which originally appeared in Hemisphere Magazine