A spiritual capital of Islam and an ancient city since the 5th century

Timbuktu, Mali - UNESCO World Heritage Site

Country: Mali | Type: Cultural | Theme: Urban Landscape 

Introduction to Timbuktu

Timbuktu is thought to have been found near the end of the 5th century.  During the 15th and 16th centuries, Timbuktu was an important center for the growth of Islam.  The city contains several well-known mosques including Sankore, Djingareyber, and Sidi Yahia.  These three mosques are remnants of the golden age of Timbuktu as an intellectual and spiritual capital during the 16th century.  In addition, they played a vital role in the spread of the Islamic religion into Africa.  Continuous efforts are made to restore these monuments today; however, each is under a grave threat from the harsh desert conditions of the area. In addition to the mosques, the World Heritage Site of Timbuktu comprises 16 cemeteries and mausoleums.  The oldest mausoleum dates from 1529, that of Shekh Abdul Kassim Attouaty.  Other significant sites include the grave of Siki Mahmoudou, a scholar, and that of Qadi Al Aqfd, a restorer of the mosques.

The mosques are some of the must-see sites in Timbuktu and are some of the most well-known landmarks in the city.  The Mosque of Djingareyber is the most impressive and the largest.  It is also the most tourist-friendly.  The other two, Sankore and Sidi Yahia, are also worth visiting.  The three are all within walking distance of each other.

Also included in the World Heritage Sites are the many houses that once belonged to the first European explorers to arrive in the area.  These explorers came to the city in the 1800s and each of their homes is noted with a wall plaque.  Though most of these places are now private residence, it is still worth a look.  One house, that of Heinrich Barth, contains some relevant exhibits.

The ethnographic museum, in the same general area as the houses, is also of interest.  Exhibits here display many artifacts including jewelry and furniture.  One of the most interesting exhibits is a collection of black and white photos from the colonial area.  The Well of Bouctou is located the courtyard of the ethnographic museum, another landmark of the city

The markets of Timbuktu are an excellent way to experience local life.  Because they are not geared toward tourists, the markets allow visitors to have a more authentic experiences.  The markets cater to local needs, selling food, cloth, and utensils.  Artisans also sell wares here, including swords and silverware.  It is possible to watch many of these artisans at work.

The city developed in the late 5th century at the intersection of several important trade routes.  The people who settled in this area were Imakcharen Tuaregs, a group who wandered hundreds of miles south of their homestead. The camp was supposedly guarded by an elderly woman called Buktu.  Thus the city was named Timbuktu, meaning the place of Buktu.  Over the years, it became a market city and an important Islamic city.  It reached a golden age from about 1493 to 1591.

The Mosque of Djingareyber was constructed in 1325 by Kankan Moussa—the sultan at that time— upon his return from a pilgrimage at Mecca.  In the late 1500s, it was added to and enlarged by Imam Al Aqib.  Similarly, Al Aqib restored the Mosque of Sankore in the late 1500s.  The Mosque of Sidi Yahia was originally built a bit later than the other two, around 1400.  It too was later restored by Imam Al Aqib.

By car:

From Mopti, the drive takes at least 12 hours.  Another alternative is to take a 4×4 from Gao through the desert; however, travelers should be aware that this is a tiring and harsh experience.

By boat:

Another alternative is to take a tourist boat from Mopti.  It will take about three days to reach Timbuktu traveling in this manner.

By airplane:

It is also possible to fly into Timbuktu Airport from either Bamako or Mopti.  However, travelers should be aware that it is difficult to book flights outside the country and the schedules can sometimes be unreliable.

Key Facts

Inscribed: 1988
Nearest City: Timbuktu
Province: Tombouctou
Coordinates: Lat: 16.7733, Long: -2.9994
Accessibility: Moderate
Services: Adequate


  • City was founded in the 5th century
  • Was a center of trade in the 15th and 16th century
  • Several famous mosques are located within the city
  • Visitors can experience local life by visiting the markets in town
  • Historical sites of interest include:
  • Homes of European colonial settlers
  • The ethnographic museum
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