Is Timbuktu a Real Place?

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A Brief History

On April 20, 1828, French explorer René Caillié became the first European to return alive from a visit to the ancient African city of Timbuktu.  Yes, this ancient city located in Mali is indeed a real place, a mysterious and fabled city of almost mythological proportions to 19th Century Europeans, enough so that the Société de Géographie in Paris offered a 10,000 Franc award to any European that could travel to Timbuktu and return alive with an account of the mystery city.

Digging Deeper

Africa was still “The Dark Continent” to Europe in 1828, largely unexplored and hostile to intruders.  With limited natural ports, tropical diseases, and hostile natives, Europeans found travel into the interior of Africa quite problematic.  Remember, guns were mostly flintlocks at that time, not reliable under wet conditions and slow to reload.  A large European force equipped with cannons would be too awkward for travel into the interior of Africa, so any technological superiority of the Europeans would mostly be moot.

Routes of European explorers in Africa to 1853.  Map by August Heinrich Petermann.

When Caillié returned to France, he was not only awarded his monetary prize, but was also awarded a Gold Medal by the Société de Géographie.  Working with scholar and writer Edme-François Jomard, Caillié published his tales of Timbuktu in 1830, providing a glimpse into African culture and life in the interior.  Caillié suffered illness on his epic journey to Timbuktu, at one point delayed for 5 months by illness.  Having taken a mostly West to East route on his trek to Timbuktu, Caillié’s return journey went more Northerly through the Sahara Desert to Morocco.

Prior to the famous trip and trek of René Caillié in 1828, British Major Gordon Laing had reached Timbuktu in 1826, only to be slain as he tried to leave the city.  Not only was Caillié awarded the monetary prize and the Gold Medal, he was also awarded the Legion of Honour and a pension by the French government, which also paid for the publishing of his accounts of Timbuktu.  Sadly, Caillié died in 1838, at the age of 38 of Tuberculosis, a common fatal malady in the 19th Century.  His trip to Timbuktu and back was all the more remarkable because he managed it alone!  He had started with a single companion but got to Timbuktu and back by himself.  Caillié’s success was no accident, as he had made careful preparation by studying the Arabic language and the religion of Islam to facilitate his travel among Arabic speakers and Muslims.

René Caillié dressed in Arab clothing.  Picture is opposite page 74 in René Caillié, Travels through Central Africa to Timbuctoo; and across the Great Desert, to Morocco, performed in the years 1824–1828. Vol. II (London: Colburn & Bentley, 1830).

Unlike the message from Major Laing that had gotten back to Europe, describing Timbuktu as a “wondrous city,” Caillié claimed Timbuktu was somewhat of a disappointment as a “small and unimportant city.”  So much for the reputation of fabled and fantastic things in Timbuktu, at least by European standards.  Nevertheless, unlike El Dorado and Shangri La, Timbuktu was indeed a real place, established in the 12th Century and flourishing for a time as a trading center for ivory, salt, gold, and slaves.  By the 14th Century, Timbuktu had become part of the massive Mali Empire before changing hands between Tuareg, Songhaian, and Moroccan overlords over the succeeding centuries.  After the golden age of Timbuktu during the times of the Mali and Songhai empires, the city gradually declined in importance and power over the centuries following Moroccan conquest.  By 1893, the city was a shadow of its former glory and was taken over by the French.  Even more recently, in 2012, during a still ongoing civil war, Islamist militants destroyed various heritage sites in the city.  Today, Timbuktu has a population of only about 54,000 people living in poverty and stricken by “desertification” of the area.  As a note, Encyclopedia Britannica defines desertification as “the process by which natural or human causes reduce the biological productivity of drylands.”

The history of Timbuktu is thus a story of glory and tragedy.  Islamic scholars writing about the glory of Timbuktu during its “Golden Age” before its decline fueled the European idea of Timbuktu as a marvelous great city of wealth and power, when in fact by the time Caillié made his two week visit to Timbuktu the city had already declined precipitously.

Questions for Students (and others):  Have you ever heard of Timbuktu?  Did you know Timbuktu was a real city?  Please let us know in the comments section below this article.

Sankore Mosque in Timbuktu.  Photograph by Senani P at English Wikipedia.

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Historical Evidence

For more information, please see…

Gomez, Michael. African Dominion: A New History of Empire in Early and Medieval West Africa. Princeton University Press, 2018.

Kane, Ousmane Oumar. Beyond Timbuktu: An Intellectual History of Muslim West Africa. Harvard University Press, 2016.

Windsor, Rudolph. From Babylon to Timbuktu: A History of the Ancient Black Races Including the Black Hebrews., 2017.

The featured image in this article, a postcard by Edmond Fortier showing the house where Caillié stayed in Timbuktu as it appeared in 1905–06, is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 70 years or less.  This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published (or registered with the U.S. Copyright Office) before January 1, 1924.  This file has been identified as being free of known restrictions under copyright law, including all related and neighboring rights.

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About Author

Major Dan

Major Dan is a retired veteran of the United States Marine Corps. He served during the Cold War and has traveled to many countries around the world. Prior to his military service, he graduated from Cleveland State University, having majored in sociology. Following his military service, he worked as a police officer eventually earning the rank of captain prior to his retirement.