What’s in a Name?
Settled by Tuaregs (the original “Blue Men of the Sahara”) in the early 12th century, Timbuktu carries one of those fabled names that conjures up images of elusiveness and mystery, of a far corner of the world that’s impossible to reach or, once you’ve arrived, to penetrate.
The city became famous in the 16th century, when its location on the ancient trans-Saharan caravan routes – and the precious salt and gold mined nearby – made it a thriving metropolis, known in Europe for its material and intellectual wealth and for its ardent Muslims. Today the city is little visited in spite of the Djingareyber, Sankoré, and Sidi Yahia mosques (all of them on UNESCO’s World Heritage List) sitting amid the city’s adobe buildings and the desert’s shifting sands. Its fortunes reflect that of Mali as a whole, which has gone from being one of the most powerful nations in Africa to being one of the poorest in the world.
Timbuktu’s precious cargo passed through its sister city of trade, Djenne, which lies 220 miles southwest. Affluent and powerful, it became even more renowned as a center of Islamic learning, and children were sent here from all of West Africa to be educated.
It has survived as one of the world’s most beautiful mud-brick towns. Its superb Great Mosque (touched up each year after the heavy rains) is the largest and most elaborate mud structure in the world. South of here is the geographically isolated Dogon country, homeland of an intriguing civilization that has so far resisted both Christianity and Islam, preserving the traditions and customs of its animist ancestors, who came here 700 years ago, perhaps from Libya.