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Timbuktu (pronounced /ˌtɪmbʌkˈtuː/; Koyra Chiini: Tumbutu; French: Tombouctou), formerly also spelt Timbuctoo, is a town in the West African nation of Mali situated 15 km (9.3 mi) north of the River Niger on the southern edge of the Sahara Desert. The town is the capital of the Timbuktu Region, one of the eight administrative regions of Mali. It had a population of 54,453 in the 2009 census.

Starting out as a seasonal settlement, Timbuktu became a permanent settlement early in the 12th century. After a shift in trading routes, Timbuktu flourished from the trade in salt, gold, ivory and slaves and became part of the Mali Empire early in the 13th century. In the first half of the 15th century the Tuareg tribes took control of the city for a short period until the expanding Songhay Empire absorbed the city in 1468. A Moroccan army defeated the Songhay in 1591, and made Timbuktu rather than Gao their capital. The invaders established a new ruling class, the arma, who after 1612 became independent of Morocco. However, the golden age of the city was over and it entered a long period of decline.

Different tribes governed until the French took over in 1893, a situation that lasted until it became part of the current Republic of Mali in 1960. Nowadays Timbuktu is impoverished and suffers from desertification. Several initiatives are being undertaken to revive the historic manuscripts still kept in the city. Meanwhile, tourism forms an important source of income.

In its Golden Age, the town's numerous Islamic scholars and extensive trading network made for a important book trade: together with the campuses of the Sankore madrassah, an Islamic university, this established Timbuktu as a scholarly centre in Africa. Several notable historic writers, such as Shabeni and Leo Africanus have described Timbuktu. These stories fuelled speculation in Europe, where the city's reputation shifted from being extremely rich to being mysterious. This reputation overshadows the town itself in modern times, to the point where it best known as a metaphor for a distant or outlandish place.



Unlike Gao, Timbuktu is not mentioned by early Arabic geographers such as al-Bakri and al-Idrisi. The first mention is by the Moroccan traveller Ibn Battuta who visited both Timbuktu and Kabara in 1352/1353 on a journey from the capital of the Mali Empire to Gao. At the time of his visit both Timbuktu and Gao formed part of the Mali Empire. Ibn Battuta provided only a brief mention of the town which suggests that Timbuktu had not yet become important. A century and a half later, in around 1510, Leo Africanus visited Timbuktu. He provided a description of town in his Descrittione dell'Africa which was published in 1550. This book was translated into a number of languages and became widely known in Europe. The earliest surviving local documents are the important seventeenth century chronicles, al-Sadi's Tarikh al-Sudan and Ibn al-Mukhtar's Tarikh al-fattash. These chronicles provide information on the town at the time of the Songhay Empire and the invasion by Moroccan forces in 1591. The authors do not, in general, acknowledge their sources. The accounts are likely to be based on earlier written records that have not survived and oral tradition. Al-Sadi and ibn al-Mukhtar were members of the scholarly class and their chronicles reflect the interests of this group. The chronicles provide biographies of the imams and judges but contain relatively little information on the social and economic history of the town.

The Tarikh al-fattash ends in around 1600 while the Tarikh al-Sudan continues to 1655. Information after this date is provided by the Tadhkirat al-Nisyan (A reminder to the obvious). This is an anonymous biographical dictionary of the Moroccan rulers of Timbuktu written in around 1750. It does not contain the detail provided by the earlier Tarikh al-Sudan. A short chronicle written by Mawlay al-Qasim gives details of the pashalik in the second half of the 18th century. For the 19th century there are numerous local sources but the information is very fragmented.


When Abd al-Sadi wrote his chronicle Tarikh al-Sudan, based on oral tradition, in the 17th century, he dates the foundation at 'the end of the fifth century of the hijra' or around 1100 AD. Al-Sadi saw Maghsharan Tuareg as the founders, as their summer encampment grew from temporary settlement to depot to travellers' meeting place. However, modern research cites insufficient available evidence to pinpoint the exact time of origin and founders of Timbuktu, although it is clear that the city originated from a local trade between Saharan pastoralists and boat trade within the Niger River Delta. The importance of the river prompted descriptions of the city as 'a gift of the Niger', in analogy to Herodotus' 'gift of the Nile'.

Rise of the Mali Empire

During the twelfth century, the remnants of the Ghana Empire were invaded by the Sosso Empire king Soumaoro Kanté. Muslim scholars from Walata (beginning to replace Aoudaghost as trade route terminus) fled to Timbuktu and solidified the position of Islam, a religion that had gradually spread throughout West Africa, mainly through commercial contacts. Islam at the time in the area was not uniform, its nature changing from city to city and Timbuktu's bond with the religion was reinforced through its openness to strangers, attracting many religious scholars. In 1324 Timbuktu was peacefully annexed by king Musa I, returning from his pilgrimage to Mecca. The city now part of the Mali Empire, king Musa I ordered the construction of a royal palace and, together with his following of hundreds of Muslim scholars, built the learning centre of Djinguereber Mosque.

In 1375, Timbuktu appeared in the Catalan Atlas, showing that it was, by then, a commercial centre linked to the North-African cities and had caught Europe's eye.

Tuareg rule and the Songhayan Empire

With the power of the Mali Empire waning in the first half of the 15th century, Maghsharan Tuareg took control of the city in 1433-1434 and installed a Sanhaja governor. Thirty years later however, the rising Songhay Empire expanded, absorbing Timbuktu in 1468-1469. Led by consecutively Sunni Ali Ber (1468–1492), Sunni Baru (1492–1493) and Askia Mohammad I (1493–1528), who brought the Songhay Empire and Timbuktu a golden age. With the capital of the empire being Gao, Timbuktu enjoyed a relatively autonomous position. Merchants from Ghadames, Awjidah, and numerous other cities of North Africa gathered there to buy gold and slaves in exchange for the Saharan salt of Taghaza and for North African cloth and horses. Leadership of the Empire stayed in the Askia dynasty until 1591, although internal fights led to a decline of prosperity in the city.

Moroccan occupation

The city's capture on 30 May 1591 by an army sent by the Saadi ruler of Morocco, Ahmad I al-Mansur, and led by Judar Pasha in search of gold mines, brought the end of an era of relative autonomy. The following period brought economic and intellectual decline. In 1593, Saadi cited 'disloyalty' as the reason for arresting, and subsequently killing or exiling many of Timbuktu's scholars, including Ahmad Baba. Perhaps the city's greatest scholar, he was forced to move to Marrakesh because of the intellectual opposition to the city's Morrocan governor, where he continued to generate attention of the scholarly world. Ahmad Baba later returned to Timbuktu, where he died in 1608. The ultimate decline continued, with the increasing trans-atlantic trade routes (transporting African slaves, including leaders and scholars of Timbuktu) marginalising Timbuktu's role. While initially controlling the Morocco - Timbuktu trade routes, the grip of the Moroccans on the city began losing its strength in the period until 1780, and in the early 19th century the Empire didn't succeed in protecting the city against invasions and the subsequent short occupations of the Tuareg (1800), Fula (1813) and Tukular (1840). It is uncertain whether the Tukular were still in control, or if the Tuaregs had once again regained power,when the French arrived.

Contact with the West

Historic descriptions of the city had been around since Leo Africanus' account in the first half of the 16th century, and they prompted several European individuals and organizations to make great efforts to discover Timbuktu and its fabled riches. In 1788 a group of titled Englishmen formed the African Association with the goal of finding the city and charting the course of the Niger River. The earliest of their sponsored explorers was a young Scottish adventurer named Mungo Park, who made two trips in search of the Niger River and Timbuktu (departing first in 1795 and then in 1805). It is believed that Park was the first Westerner to have reached the city, but he died in modern day Nigeria without having the chance to report his findings. In 1824, the Paris-based Société de Géographie offered a 10,000 franc prize to the first non-Muslim to reach the town and return with information about it. The Scotsman Gordon Laing arrived in August 1826 but was killed the following month by local Muslims who were fearful of European intervention. The Frenchman René Caillié arrived in 1828 travelling alone, disguised as a Muslim; he was able to safely return and claim the prize.

Robert Adams, an African-American sailor, claimed to have visited the city in 1811 as a slave for a period of several months after his ship wrecked off the African coast. He later gave an account to the British consul in Tangier, Morocco in 1813 that was published in an 1816 book, The Narrative of Robert Adams. However, great doubts remain about his account. Three other Europeans reached the city before 1890: Heinrich Barth in 1853 and the German Oskar Lenz with the Spaniard Cristobal Benítez in 1880.

French colonial rule

After the scramble for Africa had been formalized in the Berlin Conference, land between the 14th meridian and Miltou, Chad would become French territory, bound in the south by a line running from Say, Niger to Baroua. Although the Timbuktu region was now French in name, the principle of effectivity needed France to actually hold power in those areas assigned, e.g. by signing agreements with local chiefs, setting up a government and making use of the area economically, before the claim would be definitive. On December 15, 1893, the city, by then long past its prime, was annexed by a small group of French soldiers, led by Lieutenant Gaston Boiteux. Timbuktu became part of French Sudan (Soudan Français), a colony of France. The colony was reorganised and the name changed several times during the French colonial period. In 1899 the French Sudan was subdivided and Timbuktu became part of Upper Senegal and Middle Niger (Haut-Sénégal et Moyen Niger). In 1902 the name became Senegambia and Niger (Sénégambie et Niger) and in 1904 this was changed again to Upper Senegal and Niger (Haut-Sénégal et Niger). This name was used until 1920 when the it became French Sudan again.

World War II

During World War II, several legions were recruited in French Soudan, with some coming from Timbuktu, to help general Charles de Gaulle fight Nazi-occupied France and southern Vichy France.

About 60 British merchant seamen from the SS Allende (Cardiff), sunk on the 17th March 1942 off the South coast of West Africa, were held prisoner in the city during the Second World War. Two months later, after having been transported from Freetown to Timbuktu, two of them, AB John Turnbull Graham (2 May 1942, age 23) and Chief Engineer William Soutter (28 May 1942, age 60) died there in May 1942. Both men were buried in the European cemetery - possibly the most remote British war graves tended by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.

They were not the only war captives in Timbuktu: Peter de Neumann was one of 52 men imprisoned in Timbuktu in 1942 when their ship, the SS Criton, was intercepted by two Vichy French warships. Although several men, including de Neumann, escaped, they were all recaptured and stayed a total of ten months in the city, guarded by natives. Upon his return to England, he became known as "The Man from Timbuctoo".

Independence and onwards

After World War II, the French government under Charles de Gaulle granted the colony more and more freedom. After a period as part of the short-lived Mali Federation, the Republic of Mali was proclaimed on September 22, 1960. After a November 19, 1968, a new constitution was created in 1974, making Mali a single-party state. By then, the canal linking the city with the Niger River had already been filled with sand from the encroaching desert. Severe droughts hit the Sahel region in 1973 and 1985, decimating the Tuareg population around Timbuktu who relied on goat herding. The Niger's water level dropped, postponing the arrival of food transport and trading vessels. The crisis drove many of the inhabitants of Tombouctou Region to Algeria and Libya. Those who stayed relied on humanitarian organisations such as UNICEF for food and water.


Over the centuries, the spelling of Timbuktu has varied a great deal: from traveller Antonius Malfante's "Thambet", used in a letter he wrote in 1447 and also adopted by Alvise Cadamosto in his "Voyages of Cadamosto, to Heinrich Barth's Timbúktu and Timbu'ktu. As well as its spelling, Timbuktu's etymology is still open to discussion.

At least four possible origins of the name of Timbuktu have been described:
  • Songhai origin: both Leo Africanus and Heinrich Barth believed the name was derived from two Songhau words. Leo Africanus argued:"This name [Timbuktu] was in our times (as some think) imposed upon this kingdom from the name of a certain town so called, which (they say) king Mense Suleiman founded in the yeere of the Hegeira 610 [1213-1214]." The word itself consisted of two parts, tin (wall) and butu ("Wall of Butu"), the meaning of which Africanus did not explain. Heinrich Barth suggested: "the original form of the name was the Songhai form Túmbutu, from whence the Imóshagh made Tumbýtku, which was afterwards changed by the Arabs into Tombuktu". On the meaning of the word Barth noted the following: "the town was probably so called, in the Songhai language: if it were a Temáshight word, it would be written Tinbuktu. The name is generally interpreted by Europeans [as] 'well of Buktu', but 'tin' has nothing to do with well".
  • Berber origin: Cissoko mentions a different etymology: the Tuareg founders of the city gave it a Berber name, a word composed of two parts: tim, the feminine form of In, meaning “place of”and “bouctou”, a contraction of the Arab word nekba (small dune). Hence, Timbuktu would mean “place covered by small dunes”.
  • Abd al-Sadi offers a third explanation in his Tarikh al-Sudan (ca. 1655): "The Tuareg made it a depot for their belongings and provisions, and it grew into a crossroads for travellers coming and going. Looking after their belongings was a slave woman of theirs called Tinbuktu, which in their language means [the one having a] 'lump'. The blessed spot where she encamped was named after her."
  • The French orientalist René Basset forwarded another theory: the name derives from the Zenaga root b-k-t, meaning "to be distant" or "hidden", and the feminine possessive particle tin. The meaning "hidden" could point to the city's location in a slight hollow.

The validity of these theories depends on the identity of the original founders of the city: remnants dated from before the Songhay Empire exist and stories about earlier history point towards the Tuareg. But, as recent as 2000, archaeological research has not found remains dating from the 11th/12th century due to meters of sand that have buried the remains over the past centuries. Without consensus, the etymology of Timbuktu remains unclear.

Legendary tales

Tales of Timbuktu's fabulous wealth helped prompt European exploration of the west coast of Africa. Among the most famous descriptions of Timbuktu are those of Leo Africanus and Shabeni

Leo Africanus

Perhaps most famous among the accounts written about Timbuktu is that by Leo Africanus. Born El Hasan ben Muhammed el-Wazzan-ez-Zayyati in Granada in 1485, he was expelled along with his parents and thousands of other Muslims by King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella after their reconquest of Spain in 1492. Settling in Morocco, he studied in Fes and accompanied his uncle on diplomatic missions throughout North Africa. During these travels, he visited Timbuktu. As a young man he was captured by pirates and presented as an exceptionally learned slave to Pope Leo X, who freed him, baptized him under the name "Johannis Leo de Medici", and commissioned him to write, in Italian, a detailed survey of Africa. His accounts provided most of what Europeans knew about the continent for the next several centuries. Describing Timbuktu when the Songhai empire was at its height, the English edition of his book includes the description:

According to Leo Africanus, there were abundant supplies of locally produced corn, cattle, milk and butter, though there were neither gardens nor orchards surrounding the city. In another passage dedicated to describing the wealth of both the environment and the king, Africanus touches upon the rarity of some of Timbuktu's trade commodities: salt. These descriptions and passages alike caught the attention of European explorers. Africanus, though, also described the more mundane aspects of the city, such as the "cottages built of chalk, and covered with thatch" - although these went largely unheeded.


Roughly 250 years after Leo Africanus' visit to Timbuktu, the city had seen many rulers. The end of the 18th century saw the grip of the Moroccon rulers on the city wane, resulting in a period of unstable government by quickly changing tribes. During the rule of one of those tribes, the Hausa, a 14 year old child from Tetouan accompanied his father on a visit to Timbuktu. Growing up a merchant, he was captured and eventually brought to England. Shabeni, or Asseed El Hage Abd Salam Shabeeny stayed in Timbuktu for three years before moving to Housa. Two years later, he returned to Timbuctoo to live there for another seven years - one of a population that was even centuries after its peak and excluding slaves, double the size of the 21st century town.

By the time Shabeni was 27, he was an established merchant in his hometown. Returning from a trademission to Hamburgh, his English ship was captured and brought to Ostende by a ship under Russian colours in December, 1789.

He was subsequently set free by the British consulate, but his ship set him ashore in Dover for fear of being captured again. Here, his story was recorded. Shabeeni gave an indication of the size of the city in the second half of the 18th. In an earlier passage, he described an environment that was characterized by forest, as opposed to nowadays' arid surroundings.

Modern Legacy

Nowadays Timbuktu is, before all, a place that bears with it a sense of mystery: a 2006 survey of 150 young Britons found 34% did not believe the town existed, while the other 66% considered it "a mythical place". This sense has been acknowledged in literature describing African history and African-European relations.

The origin of this mystification lies in the excitement brought to Europe by the legendary tales, especially those by Leo Africanus: Arabic sources focused mainly on more affluent cities in the Timbuktu region, such as Gao and Walata; in West-Africa the city holds an image that has been compared to Europe's view on Athens. As such, the picture of the city as the epitome of distance and mystery is a European one.

Down-to-earth-aspects in Africanus' descriptions were largely ignored and heedings of great riches served as acatalyst for travellers to visit the inaccessible city – with prominent French explorer René Caillié characterising Timbuktu as "a mass of ill-looking houses built of earth".Now opened up, many travellers acknowledged the unfitting description of an "African El Dorado". This development shifted the city's reputation - from being fabled because of its gold to fabled because of its location and mystery:

Being used in this sense since at least 1863, English dictionaries now cite Timbuktu as a metaphor for any faraway place. Long part of colloquial language, Timbuktu also found its way into literature: in Tom Robbins' novel Half Asleep in Frog Pajamas, Timbuktu provides a central theme. One lead character, Larry Diamond, is vocally fascinated with the city.

In the stage play Oliver!, a 1960 musical, when the title character sings to Nancy, "I'd do anything for you, dear", one of her responses is "Go to Timbuktu?" "And back again", Oliver responds.

Similar uses of the city are found in movies, where it is used to indicate a place a person or good cannot be traced - in a Dutch Donald Duck comic subseries situated in Timbuktu, Donald Duck uses the city as a safe haven, and in the 1970 Disney animated feature The Aristocats, cats are sent to Timbuktu. It is mistakenly noted to be in French Equatorial Africa, instead of French West Africa. Timbuktu has provided the main setting for at least one movie: the 1959 film Timbuktu was set in the city in 1940, although it was filmed in Kanab, Utah.

Centre of learning

Timbuktu was a world centre of Islamic learning from the 13th to the 17th century. The Malian government and NGOs have been working to catalog and restore the remnants of this scholarly legacy: Timbuktu’s manuscripts.

Timbuktu’s rapid economic growth in the 13th and 14th centuries drew many scholars from nearby Walata, leading up to the city’s golden age in the 15th and 16th centuries that proved fertile ground for scholarship of religions, arts and science. An active trade in books between Timbuktu and other parts of the Islamic world and emperor Askia Mohammed’s strong support led to the writing of thousands of manuscripts.

Knowledge was gathered in a manner similar to the early, informal European Medieval university model. Lecturing was presented through a range of informal institutions called madrasahs. Nowadays dubbed the ‘University of Timbuktu’, three madrasahs facilitated 25,000 students: Djinguereber, Sidi Yahya and Sankore. These institutions were explicitly religious, as opposed to the more secular curricula of modern European universities. However, where universities in the European sense started as associations of students and teachers, West-African education was patronized by families or lineages, with the Aqit and Bunu al-Qadi al-Hajj families being two of the most prominent in Timbuktu. Although the basis of Islamic law and its teaching were brought to Timbuktu from North Africa with the spread of Islam, Western African scholarship developed: Ahmad Baba al Massufi is regarded as the city's greatest scholar. Over time however, the share of patrons that originated from or identified themselves as West-Africans decreased.

Timbuktu served in this process as a distribution centre of scholars and scholarship. Its reliance on trade meant intensive movement of scholars between the city and its extensive network of trade partners. In 1468-1469 though, many scholars left for Walata when Sunni Ali’s Songhay Empire absorbed Timbuktu and again in 1591 with the Moroccan occupation.

This system of education survived until late 19th century, while the 18th century saw the institution of itinerant Quranic school as a form of universal education, where scholars would travel throughout the region with their students, begging for food part of the day. Islamic education came under pressure after the French occupation, droughts in the 70s and 80s and by Mali’s civil war in the early 90s.

The manuscripts and libraries of Timbuktu

Hundreds of thousands of manuscripts were collected in Timbuktu over the course of centuries: some were written in the town itself, others - including exclusive copies of the Qur’an for wealthy families- imported through the lively booktrade.

Hidden in cellars or buried, hid between the mosque's mud walls and safeguarded by their patrons, many of these manuscripts survived the city's decline. They now form the collection of several libraries in Timbuktu, holding up to 700,000 manuscripts:
  •     Ahmed Baba Institute
  •     Mamma Haidara Library
  •     Fondo Kati
  •     Al-Wangari Library
  •     Mohamed Tahar Library
  •     Maigala Library
  •     Boularaf Collection
  •     Al Kounti Collections

These libraries are the largest among up to 60 private or public libraries that are estimated to exist in Timbuktu today, although some comprise little more than a row of books on a shelve or a bookchest. Under these circumstances, the manuscripts are vulnerable to insect damage and theft, as well as long term climate damage, despite Timbuktu's arid climate. Two Timbuktu Manuscripts Projects funded by independent universities have aimed to preserve them.


Timbuktu is located on the southern edge of the Sahara Desert 15 km north of the main channel of the River Niger. The town is surrounded by sand dunes and the streets are covered in sand. The port of Kabara is 8 km to the south of the town and is connected to an arm of the river by a 3 km canal. The canal had become heavily silted but in 2007 it was dredged as part of Libyan financed project.

The annual flood of the Niger River is a result of the heavy rainfall in the headwaters of the Niger and Bani rivers in Guinea and the northern Ivory Coast. The rainfall in these areas peaks in August but the flood water takes time to pass down the river system and through the Inner Niger Delta. At Koulikoro, 60 km downstream from Bamako, the flood peaks in September,  while in Timbuktu the flood lasts longer and usually reaches a maximum at the end of December.

In the past the area flooded by the river was more extensive and in years with high rainfall floodwater would reach the western outskirts of Timbuktu itself. A small navigable creek to the west of the town is shown maps published by Heinrich Barth in 1857 and Félix Dubois in 1896. Between 1917 and 1921, during the colonial period, the French used forced labour to dig a narrow canal linking Timbuktu with Kabara. Over the following decades this became silted and filled with sand, but in 2007 as part of the dredging project, the canal was re-excavated so that now when the River Niger floods, Timbuktu is again connected to Kabala. The Malian government has promised to address problems with the design of the canal as it currently lacks footbridges and the steep unstable banks make access to the water difficult.

Kabara can only function as a port in December to January when the river is in full flood. When the water levels are lower, boats dock at Korioumé which is linked to Timbuktu by 18 km of paved road.


Salt trade

The wealth and very existence of Timbuktu depended on its position as the southern terminus of an important trans-Saharan trade route but nowadays the only goods that are routinely transported across the desert are slabs of rock salt brought from the Taoudenni mining centre in the central Sahara 664 km (413 mi) north of Timbuktu. Until the second half of the 20th century most of the slabs were transported by large salt caravans or azalai, one leaving Timbuktu in early November and the other in late March. The caravans of several thousand camels took three weeks each way, transporting food to the miners and returning with each camel loaded with four or five 30 kg slabs of salt. The salt transport was largely controlled by the desert nomads of the Arabic speaking Berabich tribe. Although there are no roads, the slabs of salt are now usually transported from Taoudenni by truck. From Timbuktu the salt is transported by boat to other towns in Mali.


There is insufficient rainfall in the Timbuktu region for purely rainfed agriculture and crops are therefore irrigated using water from the River Niger. The main agricultural crop is rice. African floating rice (Oryza glaberrima) has traditionally been grown in regions near the river that are inundated during the annual flood. Seed is sown at the beginning of the rainy season (June-July) so that when the flood water arrives plants are already 30-40 cm in height. The plants grow up to 3 m in height as the water level rises. The rice is harvested by canoe in December. The procedure is very precarious and the yields are low but the method has the advantage that little capital investment is required. A successful crop depends critically on the amount and timing of the rain in the wet season and the height of the flood. To a limited extent the arrival of the flood water can be controlled by the construction of small mud dykes that become submerged as the water rises.

Although floating rice is still cultivated in the Timbuktu Cercle, most of the rice is now grown in three relatively large irrigated areas that lie to the south of the town: Daye 392 ha, Koriomé 550 ha and Hamadja 623 ha. Water is pumped from the river using ten large archimedes' screws which were first installed in the 1990's. The irrigated areas are run as cooperatives with approximately 2,100 families cultivating small plots.Nearly all the rice produced is consumed by the families themselves. The yields are still relatively low and the farmers are being encouraged to change their agricultural practices.

Timbuktu today

Despite its illustrious history, modern-day Timbuktu is an impoverished town, poor to Mali’s Third World standards as well. Despite this, the population has grown an average 5.7% per year from 29,732 in 1998 to 54,453 in 2009. As capital of the seventh Malian region, Tombouctou Region, Timbuktu seats the current governor, colonel Mamadou Mangara, who took over from col Mamadou Togola in 2008 – Mangara answers, as does each of the regional governors, to the Ministry of Territorial Administration & Local Communities.

Current issues include dealing with both droughts and floods, the latter caused by an insufficient drainage system that fails to transport direct rainwater from the city centre. One such event damaged World Heritage property, killing two and injuring one in 2002. Shifting of rain patterns due to climatic change and increased use of water for irrigation in the surrounding areas has led to water scarcity for agriculture and personal use.The most well-known cultural event is the Festival au Désert. When the Tuareg rebellion ended in 1996 under the Konaré administration, 3,000 weapons were burned in a ceremony dubbed the ‘Flame of Peace’ on March 29, 2007 – to commemorate the ceremony, a monument was built. The Festival au Désert, to celebrate the peace treaty, is held near the city in January.

World Heritage Site

During its twelfth session, in December 1988, the World Heritage Committee (WHC) selected parts of Timbuktu's historic centre for inscription on its World Heritage list. The selection was based on three criteria:
  • Criterion II: Timbuktu's holy places were vital to early Islamization in Africa.
  • Criterion IV: Timbuktu's mosques show a cultural and scholarly Golden Age during the Songhay Empire.
  • Criterion V: The construction of the mosques, still mostly original, shows the use of traditional building techniques.

An earlier nomination in 1979 failed the following year as it lacked proper demarcation: the Malinese government included the town of Timbuktu as a whole in the wish for inclusion. Close to a decade later, three mosques and 16 mausoleums or cemeteries were selected from the Old Town for World Heritage status: with this conclusion came the call for protection of the buildings' conditions, an exclusion of new construction works near the sites and measures against the encroaching sand.

Shortly afterwards, the monuments were placed on the List of World Heritage in Danger by the Malinese government, as suggested by the selection committee at the time of nomination. Its position on the Danger List lasted from 1990 until 2005, when a range of measures including restoration work and the compilation of an inventory 'warranted removal from the [Danger] List'. In 2008 the WHC placed the protected area under increased scrutiny dubbed 'reinforced monitoring', a measure made possible in 2007, as the impact of planned construction work was unclear. Special attention was given to the build of a cultural centre. During a session in June 2009, UNESCO decided to cease its increased monitoring program as it felt sufficient progress had been made to address the initial concerns.


Although French is Mali's official language, today the large majority of Timbuktu's inhabitants speaks Koyra Chiini, a Songhay language that also functions as the lingua franca. Before the 1990-1994 Tuareg rebellion, both Hassaniya Arabic and Tamashek were represented by 10% each to an 80% dominance of the Koyra Chiini language. With Tamashek spoken by both Bella and ethnic Tuaregs, its use declined with the expelling of many Tuaregs following the rebellion, increasing the dominance of Koyra Chiini. Arabic, introduced together with Islam during the 11th century, has mainly been the language of scholars and religion, comparable to Latin in Christianity. Although Bambara is spoken by the most numerous ethnic group in Mali, the Bambara people, it is mainly confined to the south of the country. With an improving infrastructure granting Timbuktu access to larger cities in Mali's South, use of Bambara is increasing in the city but has yet to become an influential factor.

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