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The City of Timbuktu (Tombouctou)

The City of Timbuktu (Tombouctou), Mali now represents in world culture a place at the ends of the Earth, the epitome of distance and obscurity. In earlier times this city was fabled because of its wealth rather than its obscurity.

Timbuktu started as a camp of the Taureg nomads of the Sahara. This was in the early 12th century. It was named after a woman who first commanded its defense. The name Timbuktu means in Taureg the old woman with the large navel.

By the end of the 13th century Timbuktu had grown enough to warrant conquest and incorporation into the Mali Empire. The Sultan of Mali, Mansa Musa, built a great mosque and a royal residence for himself there. By the 14th century the city had become enough of a prize that competing empires sought control of it. At various time control of Timbuktu fell to the Mossi kingdom and the Taureg nomads as well as Mali. It became an entrepot for the trans-Sahara salt trade and gold trade. In time the slave trade also became part of the economy of Timbuktu. North African merchants settled there and in time the city because a center of Islamic learning.

In 1468 Timbuktu was conquered by the Songhai Empire and remained under its control until 1591 when the Morroccan Empire captured it. Although Timbuktu flourished under the control of the Songhai Empire it declined under Morrocan control. The Morrocan did not, and perhaps could not, defend Timbuktu against attacks by more local kingdoms. Finally in 1891 the French came and took control. Timbuktu remained in their hands until Mali was given independence in 1960. In recent years Timbuktu is only a small city with a population some tens of thousands.


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