Timbuktu is a town in the West African nation of Mali situated 10 miles north of the River Niger on the southern edge of the Sahara Desert. A relatively stable country, the government of Mali was deposed by a military coup in March. The coup emboldened rebels, led by Tuareg tribesmen to occupy Timbuktu and claim it as part of their northern homeland. Reuters are reporting that al-Qaeda are supporting the Tuareg tribesmen in an attempt to widen their struggle against the west. Perhaps, very soon, everyone will know where Timbuktu is.
Starting out as a seasonal settlement, Timbuktu became a permanent settlement early in the 12th century. After a shift in trading routes, Timbuktu flourished from the trade in salt, gold, ivory and slaves, and it became part of the Mali Empire early in the 13th century. In the first half of the 15th century the Tuareg tribes took control of the city for a short period until the expanding Songhay Empire absorbed the city in 1468.
A Moroccan army defeated the Songhay in 1591, and made Timbuktu, rather than Gao, their capital. The invaders established a new ruling class, the arma, who after 1612 became independent of Morocco. However, the golden age of the city was over and it entered a long period of decline. Different tribes governed until the French took over in 1893, a situation that lasted until it became part of the current Republic of Mali in 1960.
Timbuktu was designated a UNESCO world-heritage site in 1988 as a testament “to the golden age of Timbuktu in the 16th century and to a history that stretches even further back to the 5th century A.D.,” said Irina Bokova, Unesco’s director general.
Timbuktu is known for its distinctive architecture that combines mud and wood. The most famous examples are the great mosques of Djenna, Sankore, and Sidi Yahia. The town is also host to 700,000 ancient manuscripts. If fighting erupts in northern Mali, UNESCO fears that evidence of great world culture will be lost.