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There’s a popular expression some use to describe a long distance and they say that something is, ‘as far away as Timbuktu’. Let’s look at the history and facts of this African city and see why we hear this popular saying.

A Mysterious Destination

In the early part of the nineteenth century, fortune hunters and geographers from Europe longed to find a city in Africa called Timbuktu. Even the name of this city was intriguing as there are different stories or explanations for its origin. One source indicates that the name Timbuktu derives from the Berber language, a language once spoken by people in North Africa and one of the oldest languages ever recorded in the history of the world. With tin meaning part and buqt meaning a faraway place, TINbuktu became Timbuktu, translated to represent a location at the other end of the world.Other terms describing Timbuktu include the City of Gold, because it was believed to have streets paved with gold, and The Lost City, because it is situated north of the river Niger and on the southern edge of the Sahara Desert.In the early nineteenth century, many geographers from Europe were determined to travel to Timbuktu because of its reputation as a place of great wealth.

Timbuktu was an unexplored location, and no Europeans had been able to locate the mysterious city.In 1824, a reward of 10,000 francs was offered by the geographical society in France, to the person of any nation that successfully traveled and returned from Timbuktu. An army officer named Alexander Gordon Laing (originally from Scotland) located the city but was killed by locals and never returned. Two years later, a French explorer took on the same challenge and returned from Timbuktu to claim the prize. A German explorer named Henry Barth is also noted for successfully making this journey to and from Timbuktu and recorded his experiences.

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For years European geographers were challenged to not only successfully travel to Timbuktu, but also to return home
Timbuktu is uniquely situated geographically, north of the Niger River and south of the Sahara Desert

Mansa Musa and the Malian Empire

Early Arabic records indicated that Timbuktu was a central meeting place for merchants. The city had become a major part of the Malian Empire. The influx of economic wealth provided the means for developing libraries, markets, mosques, and schools. Caravans of camels transported goods from West Africa to North Africa.One of the most notable people known to come from the city of Timbuktu was a ruler (emperor) named Musa, who was referred to as Mansa (the King).

Mansa Musa ruled the Malian Empire from 1312 to 1337, at a time when Timbuktu attracted scholars of history and law. During his rule, Mali progressed economically, politically and culturally, and made Timbuktu a popular place of learning, spreading Islam (a Muslim religion) throughout Africa.Mansa Musa made an elaborate entrance to the city of Cairo from Timbuktu, accompanied by a caravan that was a spectacular representation of the vast wealth found in this part of Africa.

Traveling on his way to Mecca, the holy city of the Muslim religion, Mansa Musa was accompanied by concubines, soldiers, his wives, and slaves, in tremendous numbers, with each slave dressed in silk and brocade, carrying a golden staff. His baggage was carried by a large number of camels, also carrying huge amounts of gold and other gifts. On his return trip, MansaMusa brought back architects who were responsible for building famous mosques (Muslim houses of worship) in the city.

Years following this remarkable entrance into Cairo, Mansa Musa was still recognized as having established an unusual and unmatched standard of Timbuktu’s power and wealth.

Timbuktu is still considered one of the most remote parts of the world

Lesson Summary

Timbuktu, located in the Republic of Mali in West Africa was once known as a wealthy city both economically and socially. The Islam religion was very prominent in the city where merchants and scholars met to trade gold and other commodities including books, salt, gemstones, cloth, and slaves.

In addition, Timbuktu was known for establishing the teaching of history, law, and religion. Although the culture, economics, and history of this city was once flourishing, Timbuktu is currently in a declined state of population as well as economics.

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