Founding of Timbuktu Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Timbuktu was a major post for the lively trade in gold and salt between other regions in Africa and in Europe. Timbuktu benefited from being located among military, economic, and religious powers and was strategically situated within several African empires. It was also a center of Islamic learning.

Summary of Event

One of the most mysterious cities in the world, Timbuktu has acquired a reputation as an exotic and ancient city in the nether reaches of the Sahara Desert. Separating myth from reality about the city is difficult because Timbuktu has been idealized by visitors and even by those who have never been to the city. [kw]Founding of Timbuktu (c. 1100) [kw]Timbuktu, Founding of (c. 1100) Timbuktu Africa;c. 1100: Founding of Timbuktu[1740] Cultural and intellectual history;c. 1100: Founding of Timbuktu[1740] Trade and commerce;c. 1100: Founding of Timbuktu[1740] Mansa Mūsā

Timbuktu is located a few miles north of the Niger River, in the middle of West Africa. The Niger River has nourished several empires in West Africa. Along the great bend of the river were the Songhai, who would come to rule Timbuktu after defeating the Mali Empire. The Songhai Songhai kingdom capital of Gao was a major trading rival of Timbuktu but also helped develop the city’s trade. Near the source of the Niger, as it curls toward the Atlantic Ocean but never quite reaches it, were the Mande people. Tribes within the Mande would challenge the ancient empire of Ghana and eventually become part of Mali. To the south near the Volta River were the Gurs, while to the immediate north of Timbuktu were the Berbers, a group of nomads who ranged from the Niger River to the Mediterranean Sea and what is now Morocco. Other tribes, too, would compete for the lucrative trade routes and economic power would shift up and down the Niger from the thirteenth through the sixteenth centuries.

The Niger River is an important trade route and source of water near one of the most desolate areas on the globe, the Sahara Desert. Trade;Africa Africa;trade The river enabled trade from the eastern Sudan to the western Sudan, and from the Sahara and Europe to the gold mines of Ghana and West Africa.

Ghana Ghana (ancient) was the dominant political and military force in West Africa from the sixth through the tenth centuries. It used trade to maintain its power, using taxes assessed on trade caravans for its army. As gold flowed into the capital of Kumbi, the Ghana kings expanded their empire from the Atlantic Ocean into what is now Nigeria. The kings exploited the notion of divine rule, that is, they promoted the idea that they were successors to gods. Yet divine rule led to the tradition of killing the kings when they became ill, for fear their illness would harm the kingdom.

The movement of Islamic armies into North Africa presented a challenge to Ghana, starting in the eleventh century. A nomadic tribe known as the Berbers Berbers swept south through the Sahara Desert in the last half of the eleventh century, captured the Ghana capital, and weakened the empire sufficiently to make it vulnerable to attacks from its West African neighbors. Still, the Berbers continued their extensive trade with the area, further enhancing the importance of Timbuktu.

The arrival of the Berber traders and the subsequent rise in the trading cities along the Niger River can be attributed partially to the fall of the Roman Empire during the fifth century. The Romans, suspicious of nomadic tribes crossing in and out of their well-defended borders in North Africa, forced the Berbers in that region to adopt an agricultural rather than trade-oriented way of life. Once Roman power was broken in the area, the Berbers returned to nomadism and moved south, transporting trade goods from Europe into West Africa and making the Niger River Valley a key component of that trade. With trade came the need to establish cities where goods could be exchanged. One of those cities was Timbuktu.

The exact year of the founding of Timbuktu is unknown, but most scholars place it around 1100. Its creation came out of the trading practices of the Tuareg Tuareg tribe, a group of fierce nomadic and independent tribesmen who traded goods along the Niger River. It is believed that the Tuareg created Timbuktu as a storage place for their goods while they roamed the surrounding desert. However, Timbuktu soon began to grow in population and size, and its central location along trade routes made it strategically important for the various empires jockeying for control of the area.

Timbuktu was one of the nearest overland points for trade routes north to Europe, which was desperate for new sources of gold as its own sources were being diminished. For this reason, traders used Timbuktu as a point of departure north into the Sahara Desert, bringing trade goods from Europe to exchange for Ghana’s gold. Trade with the Europeans marked Timbuktu—both in fact and as myth—as a place of extraordinary wealth. Gold;trade in

Some 500 miles (800 kilometers) north of the city sat the salt mines of Taghaza. The mines had existed since the founding of the city, and the salt trade was part of its commerce. The lack of salt Salt trade (Africa) in the Ghana region suddenly made it a valuable commodity, and it was traded for the gold, which was plentiful. Another crop that was valuable to those in the north was the kola nut. Produced widely in the southern portion of West Africa, it was valued in Europe—and became the basis for cola drinks in the twentieth century. Ivory also was plentiful in West Africa, and it was valued all over the world. As the gold became depleted in Ghana, ivory Ivory;trade in became a kind of coin for those seeking to buy goods from the north.

As it developed, Timbuktu became the last overland leg for goods being brought in from the north. After reaching the city, the goods were transported to the Niger, where they were taken by canoe to the other major trading city of Jenne Jenne (Djenné).

Timbuktu, however, did not become known throughout much of the world until after the fall of the Ghana Empire. The empire of Mali Mali , begun by a tribe of the Monde people, not only saw Timbuktu expand beyond a single point along a 2,000-mile (3,200-kilometer) trade route but as a major destination for political and religious figures. Timbuktu became a center of intellectual and religious life during the reign of the Malian king Mansa Mūsā Mūsā, Mansa .

Possibly one of the greatest kings in Mali and medieval West Africa, Mansa Mūsā had converted to the Muslim faith. As part of that faith, he began a journey to Mecca in 1324. Arriving in Egypt in 1325, the king, along with his entourage of approximately ten thousand people, began spending the gold in his possession so freely that the Egyptian price of the precious metal plummeted almost 10 percent because of the oversupply. His extraordinary wealth and willingness to spend it created much talk in the Muslim world about the riches to be found in West Africa and Mali. He returned to Mali in 1325 and visited Timbuktu. During that visit, he recruited an Egyptian to build one of the largest mosques in West Africa. It still stands today.

While the mosque might be the most visible result of the king’s journey to Timbuktu, his creation of a center of education at the Sankore mosque was his longest lasting, significant achievement. Sankore became a major focus of Islamic learning and scholarship in West Africa. Thousands of students went through the university and many remained to add to the interpretation of Islamic law and culture. It also made Timbuktu a center of Islamic learning in Africa.


The founding of Timbuktu saw the creation of a multiethnic and multireligious city within the realms of three different empires. Timbuktu’s reputation as a major center of Islamic learning and teaching in Africa made it one of the most cosmopolitan cities on the continent. Even though it was ruled by the Ghana, Mali, and Songhai Empires, it remained independent politically, which was a testament to its importance as a trading center on the southern fringes of the Sahara Desert. Timbuktu declined only after it was sacked by the Berbers in the sixteenth century. Colonization of Africa by Europeans in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries eventually reduced Timbuktu to the backwater it remains today, clinging only to a reputation as an exotic city.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Gates, Henry Louis, Jr. Wonders of the African World. New York: Knopf, 1999. A work by a well-known scholar of African history. Includes the chapter, “Salt, Gold, and Books: The Road to Timbuktu.” Illustrations, maps, bibliography, index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Insoll, Timothy. “Timbuktu and Europe: Trade, Cities and Islam in ’Medieval’s West Africa.” In The Medieval World, edited by Peter Linehan and Janet L. Nelson. New York: Routledge, 2001. Part of a collection exploring a history of the Middle Ages, this chapter looks at Timbuktu’s role in trading with Europe. Bibliography, index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Oliver, Roland, and Anthony Atmore. Medieval Africa, 1250-1800. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001. A wide-ranging book that describes the various empires and leaders of medieval Africa, with a more limited focus on the advancement of culture within the region. Bibliography, index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Palumbo, Joe. Mansa Mūsa, African King of Gold. Los Angeles: National Center for History in the Schools, University of California, Los Angeles, 1991. A teacher’s guide to preparing a unit for grades 7-9 on Mansa Mūsā.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Reader, John. Africa: A Biography of a Continent. New York: Alfred Knopf, 1998. An eminently readable book that focuses on both political and cultural issues and also such rarely discussed issues as how disease affected the development of Africa and how colonization interfered with that development. Illustrations, maps, bibliography, index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Saad, Elias N. A Social History of Timbuktu: The Role of Muslim Scholars and Notables. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1995. Focuses on the various peoples and religions of Timbuktu after its founding and during its golden age from 1200 to 1500. Bibliography, index.

Categories: History