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Timbuktu (Mali)

The Place of Buktu


Sankore Mosque, Timbuktu (Mali)

Sankore Mosque, Timbuktu (Mali)

Radio Raheem

Timbuktu (also spelled Tombouctou or Timbuctoo) is located on the inner delta of the Niger River in the African country of Mali.

The origin myth for the city was written in the 17th century Tarikh al-Sudan manuscript. It says that Timbuktu began about AD 1100 as a seasonal camp for pastoralists, where a well was kept by an old slave woman named Buktu. The city expanded around the well, and became known as Timbuktu, "the place of Buktu". Timbuktu's location on a camel route between the coast and salt mines led to its importance in the trade network of gold, salt and slavery.

Cosmopolitan Timbuktu

Timbuktu has been ruled by a string of different overlords since that time, including Moroccan, Fulani, Tuareg, Songhai and French. Important architectural elements still standing at Timbuktu include three medieval Butabu (mud brick) mosques: the 15th century mosques of Sankore and Sidi Yahya, and Djinguereber mosque built 1327. Also of importance are two French forts, Fort Bonnier (now Fort Chech Sidi Bekaye) and Fort Philippe (now the gendarmerie), both dated to the late 19th century.

Archaeology at Timbuktu

The first substantive archaeological survey of the area was by Susan Keech McIntosh and Rod McIntosh in the 1980s. The survey identified pottery at the site, including Chinese celadon, dated to the late 11th/early 12th century AD, and a series of black, burnished geometric sherds that may date as early as the 8th century AD.

Timothy Insoll started work there in the 1990s, but he has discovered quite a high level of disturbance, partly a result of its long and varied political history, and partly from the environmental impact of centuries of sandstorms and flooding.


Insoll, Timothy. 1998. Archaeological Research in Timbuktu, Mali. Antiquity 72:413-17.

Insoll, Timothy. 2002. The Archaeology of Post Medieval Timbuktu. Sahara 13:7-22.

Insoll, Timothy. 2004. Timbuktu the less Mysterious? pp. 81-88 in Researching Africa's Past. New Contributions from British Archaeologists. Ed by P. Mitchell, A. Haour, and J. Hobart, J. Oxbow Press, Oxford: Oxbow.

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