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Timbuktu: The Mythical African El Dorado

Updated on October 11, 2013
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Denis is a freelancer addicted to football ('s not soccer!). He thinks POLITICS and REALITY TV were invited to dumb us down.

Sankore mosque
Sankore mosque | Source

The African El Dorado

During the 14th century, the legend of Timbuktu, the African El Dorado, began to spread across Africa and beyond. To start with, while making a pilgrimage to the holy city of Mecca, Mansa Musa (the Emperor of Mali) made a detour in Cairo. The merchants of the famous Egyptian city were impressed by the amount of gold in the ruler’s possession; supposedly from the city of Timbuktu. Mansa Musa purportedly gave away most of his gold to the poor along the way as he made his pilgrimage. The myth of Timbuktu being a city made of gold was further enhanced when the famous Muslim explorer, Ibn Batuta, wrote of his visit there. He cited the presence of great wealth and gold in the region.

A Bridge To The Western Interior

The legend of the city made of gold may just have been a case of embellishment; however, by the 15th century, Timbuktu had become a prosperous town by establishing itself as an important commercial center along the infamous (slave trade route) West African trade route. This was in part due to its strategical location along the Niger river; Timbuktu found itself as the bridge between the mostly tropical West African interior and the severely dry Saharan encroaching from the north.

Age Of Prosperity

The 16th century was considered to be Timbuktu’s political, economic and intellectual golden age. This was after the Malian Empire fell into decline and eventually making way for the Songhai Empire. Under the rule of the Songhai Empire and especially Askia al-Hajj Muhammad, the city developed a vibrant learning center which later became the University of Timbuktu. The city boasted of a large library of books as well as ancient manuscripts and also played host to famous scholars like Ahmad Baba al Massufi – considered to be the city’s greatest scholar. Even after Leo Africanus, a Muslim from Grenada, visited the city and termed it a typical trading post, the outside world didn’t lose interest in the then mysterious city. A mystery brought about by the fact that the city was quite hard to access by foreigners.

Europe Becomes Interested

To that point, Timbuktu had not received any visitors from Europe. Due to the city’s growing reputation, it was only a matter of time before the West took notice.

The first attempt, in 1618, at establishing contact ended in abject failure. A London company was sent to Timbuktu but all its members were ruthlessly massacred along the way. The second expedition lost its way along River Gambia and ended up missing their intended target.

Many more European explorers tried to reach Timbuktu but found the Sahara very unforgiving. Some of the explorers were forced to survive on camel urine or even their own.

The most prominent failure was of Mungo Park, a Scottish doctor, whose caravan was decimated along the way by warlord attacks, robbers and desertion. Allegedly, Mungo was last seen alone and insane, sailing along the Niger River with a gun in hand as he shot at people and objects on the shore. He drowned and his body was never found.

In 1824, the Geographical Society of Paris decided to offer a significant reward to any explorer who could reach Timbuktu and make a safe return with details of their adventure.

Djingareiber mosque
Djingareiber mosque | Source

Success At Last

A Scottish explorer known as Gordon Laing is considered to be first European to enter the city. unfortunately, Laing’s achievement came at a very high price as he endured a vicious attack by the nomadic Tuareg tribe. They shot, cut him up and eventually left him with a broken arm. Miraculously, Laing survived his injuries and was able to see the city. He, however, was murdered two days out of the city and never really managed to share his success with the outside world. The French explorer, Rene-Auguste Caillie was the first European to reach Timbuktu and return with a record of his journey in 1828. He studied Islam and learned Arab in order to make the journey. The Scotsman Arrived in Timbuktu after a year long journey - half of which was spent sick . Caillie was hardly impressed by the rubble he found and left after only two weeks. He wrote three volumes of his journey and was rewarded by the Geographical Society of Paris as promised. The reward amounted to 7000 francs and a gold metal valued at 2,000 francs.

By the 1800s, Timbuktu had lost most of its allure; Europe had arrived too late. The French made it part of their colonial empire in the late 1900s. It is now part of the large Mali Republic.


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    • Greensleeves Hubs profile image

      Greensleeves Hubs 3 years ago from Essex, UK

      An interesting summary of the history of Timbuktu Denis. After all this time the city retains its almost mythical status as a place in the middle of nowhere, that no one can reach. It's nice to hear how that mythology came about, and to learn something of the real Timbuktu. Alun

    • srsddn profile image

      srsddn 4 years ago from Dehra Dun, India

      underthedome, I had heard about Timbuktu earlier but did not know much details. Thanks for sharing it with historical perspective. Interesting.