by Linda Heaphy May 10, 2017 4 min read

The mosque

In the 14th Century CE, stories were circulating through the civilised world about a fabled city in the Saharan Desert where the streets were paved with gold.

Founded in the 10th Century CE by nomadic Tuaregs as a seasonal settlement, Timbuktu quickly established itself as North Africa's major trading post and grew to become a key city in several successive empires in the region.  By the 14th century Timbuktu was part of the mighty Malian empire.   

Emperor Musa

Emperor Musa, called the Magnificent and 10th dynastic ruler of the Kingdom of Mali, set out on a famous pilgrimage to Mecca in 1324.  He was accompanied by a caravan staffed with 50,000 men and a personal retinue of 12,000 slaves, all of whom were richly dressed in brocades and silks.  But it was the hundreds of kilos of gold they carried and distributed to all and sundry along the way that truly awakened the world to the wealth of North Africa.  Soon word spread to the cities of the Middle East and of Europe that the streets of Timbuktu were literally paved with gold and this story continued to grow over successive centuries to almost mythical proportions.  And in fact the city was fabulously wealthy.  Gold mined in nearby Guinea was exchanged in Timbuktu for something equally precious...salt.  In chronically short supply in sub-Saharan Africa, salt was literally worth its weight in gold, used not only as flavouring for food but as a preservative and most importantly as a vital dietary supplement.

timbuktu mosque
Timbuktu street with mosque at end

At the beginning of the 19th Century, no Westerner had ever laid eyes on the "lost" city of Timbuktu. In fact the city turned out to be unlucky for many of the Europeans who tried to discover it.  In 1788 a group of Englishmen formed the African Association and sponsored a young Scottish adventurer named Mungo Park, who made two trips in search of the Niger River and Timbuktu. It's thought that Park successfully reached the city on his second attempt in 1805 after suffering the loss of almost his entire party to hostile locals, but drowned shortly after leaving it without having the chance to report his findings. In 1824, the French Geographical Society offered a 10,000 franc prize to the first non-Muslim to reach the city and return with an account of it. A Briton, Major Alexander Laing, set out to claim the prize in 1826.  Believing the journey would take 8 weeks to complete, it took him the better part of a year to make the trip across the Sahara by caravan. Before he reached Timbuktu his retinue was attacked by hostile Tuaregs, and he completed his journey with terrible injuries.  It's believed he found the city and actually lived there for a month, however on setting out for home he was attacked again by Tuaregs frightened of European intervention, and this time was beheaded.  Finally a Frenchman René Caillié, travelling alone disguised as Muslim, arrived at Timbuktu in 1828; he was able to safely return and claim the prize.  But the legendary riches of Timbuktu were long gone: Caillié described the city as a small and unimportant village made up of mud brick houses and...there was no sign of any gold.

What caused the decline of this once prosperous city, trading capital of North Africa and the jewel in the crown of three empires that spanned 400 years of history? In 1592 the town was sacked by the Sultan of Morocco, who appropriated the city's gold and had it melted down into coinage for his own empire.  Some of these coins may still be found today in the hands of collectors and speciality coin sellers throughout the world.

The fabled gold is long gone and the Guinea mines are all but exhausted, but there is another kind of gold in Timbuktu today.   During the heyday of the city, in the early 15th century, a number of Islamic institutions were established in Timbuktu, and their legacy is the estimated 1.5 million books and manuscripts they left behind.  It's believed that these were buried as protection from thieves and fortune hunters and to date only 300,000 have been rediscovered - and most of these are in an advanced state of decay, awaiting preservation at the hands of a dedicated team of restorers funded by the Malian Government and UNESCO.

Today you can visit Timbuktu, although it remains as Caillié described it: a small and impoverished town of mud brick buildings and ubiquitous domed bread ovens that can be walked over in the space of an hour.  All but one of its streets is made of sand.  Its reputation however, has caused an international airport to be built there and a small tourist industry exists to cater to visitors. Three historically significant mud brick mosques may be found within it's walls, remnants of glory days, and there is a museum, terraced gardens and a water tower. Timbuktu is also listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. For further information about Timbuktu and what to do once you get there, visit the Wikitravel site.

What you see when you get there: an empty street in Timbuktu.
Photo credit: Ranveig

Linda Heaphy
Linda Heaphy

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