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World Heritage Site

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Timbuktu became famous in the 15th century because of the booming gold and salt trade in the Sahara region at that time.

Timbuktu was not only a commercial centre, but also of great importance for Islam and science, housing a famous university and several medressas. In some ways, it was the center of the (African-Islamic) world. The inscription actually narrows down to the three large mosques and sixteen cemeteries and mausoleums of Timbuktu.

During the 19th century a number of European adventurers visited Timbuktu, sometimes with fatal consequences. That was the period when the western world became aware of this city in the desert, and it received its romantic annotations.

Map of Timbuktu


  • Cultural

Visit October 1999

The past of Timbuktu past is more glorious than its present. Now it is a little town on the edge of the Sahara, with sand covered streets and souvenir selling Toeareg. The mosques are worth a visit, as are the old houses in the center of town with their beautiful manufactured doors.

October 1999

My most remarkable moment was that when I arrived on Friday afternoon, its male inhabitants with their colourful robes just left the mosques. They made a wonderful contrast with the sandy streets and buildings.

October 1999

Community Reviews

Eric Lurio USA - 17-Jul-12

Let's just call it the third pole. Timbuktu was one of those places of legend that it was impossible to get to. That is until the turn of the 19th century, when French and British explorers finally set foot in the place.

Then there was the great disappointment the golden city in the middle of nowhere turned out to be made of adobe and dust. It wasn't even a city, just a largish town with the great river Niger on the one side and the great Sahara desert on the other. The caravans from the salt mines brought the valuable edible rocks to the boats waiting on the river in exchange for other goods.

The glorious city of treasure was a myth, or so it seemed to the west.

The true treasures of Timbuktu are the ancient manuscripts that the locals have preserved since the demise of the great University centuries before, and there is, of course, the river, without which, the town could not exist, and yes, the salt which is brought in trucks and not on camels, and the river irrigates vast rice paddies, which from the air looks extremely strange, a green finger reaching into the desert.

The rice feeds the local population, and the price of salt isn't what it used to be and the Toregs, the tribe indigenous to the area has lost most of their camel's drought and disease, not to mention a rebellion against what was then a dictatorial government a few decades back, The dictatorship fell but the rebellion didn't until the early '90s, when they finally gave up. They've been in decline and would drown their sorrows with music at events called "Takoubelt".

About ten years ago this became more formalized, and thus, around the turn of this century, the Festival of the Desert was born.

What it is, is a cross between 'Lollapalooza' and 'Burning Man' festivals, taking place not in Timbuktu, but in a spot on the desert about a 60 miles to the northwest called Essakane, which is truly the middle of nowhere.

The only way you can get there, if you aren't a fabulously wealthy rock star or industrialist and can travel by helicopter, is to take a 4x4 or jeep from Timbuktu, which has an airport, and just for the festival, Air Mali adds a couple of flights to their twice a week schedule to Mali's capitol of Bamako, via the nicer city of Mopti, just for the festival.

It's possible to take a boat down the Niger or you can take a bus, a trip that lasts a full day of traveling the 350 miles over mostly dirt roads, and what with the State department saying that some Toregs have decided that holding Americans for ransom is a responsible career opportunity-flying is the only option.

Generally, once you get there, you have to take a look at Timbuktu, which is actually a pretty decent town, although the souvenir salesmen will follow you wherever you go throughout your stay, There isn't much there, although the Libyan government is investing a ton of money in the place, building a huge, grand hotel right on northern edge of town, which may or may not be open by 2011.

Once you get to Essakane, the tour company will escort you to your tent, there are no hotels there, and for the next three days you will 'rough it' in a luxurious way. The cream of the Sub-saharan music scene shows up, and it doesn't really matter if you've ever heard of Salif Keita or Ousmane Kouyat or any of the other musicians, they're all really good.

Raby Mali -

I'm from Timbuktu..and I loved the really got to portray what is Timbuktu...if only there could be a video..anyway how did you like your stay?

See ya!

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Community Rating

Community Rating 3.33. Based on 3 votes.

Site Info

Full name: Timbuktu

Unesco ID: 119

Inscribed: 1988 In Danger

Type: Cultural

Criteria: 2   4   5  

Link: By Name By ID

Site History

  • 2012 - In Danger threatened by armed conflict & to prevent trafficking in cultural objects from there
  • 2008 - Reinforced Monitoring New constructions near mosques
  • 2005 - Removed from Danger list 
  • 1990 - In Danger threat of sand encroachment
  • 1988 - Inscribed 
  • 1981 - Deferred At Bureau - Needs better delimitation etc
  • 1980 - Deferred 


The site has 1 locations.

  • Timbuktu


The site has 30 connections.


  • Cemeteries: "the nomination enumerates 16 cemeteries and mausoleums" (AB evaluation)
  • Mausolea: "the nomination enumerates 16 cemeteries and mausoleums" (AB evaluation)
  • Universities: Koranic Sankore University




  • Slavery
  • Forbidden City: Closed to non-islamic visitors for centuries
  • Songhai Empire: captured from the Tuaregs (who had taken it from the declining Malian empire 30 years earlier) by the Songhai Empire around 1468
  • Trans Saharan trade routes: Merchants from Ghadames, Awjilah, and numerous other cities of North Africa gathered there to buy gold and slaves in exchange for the Saharan salt of Taghaza and for North African cloth and horses. (Wiki)
  • Berbers: 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. (Wiki). The city featured a Tuareg majority until the Tuareg Rebellion and the following Northern Mali Conflict.

Human Activity

Individual People

  • Ibn Battuta
  • Leo Africanus: Probably visited by him around 1510. His description of it in the Descrittione was one of the sources for the fabled vision of the city which Europeans had, and led to their attempts to reach it in the 18th/19th centuries
  • Giovanni Belzoni: died of dysentery in Benin (modern Nigeria) trying to reach Timbuktou in 1823

Religion and Belief

  • Mosque: Djinguereber Mosque, 1327, Sunni
  • Sufism: Is said to contain the tombs of 333 Sufi Saints. E.g Sidi Mahmoud Ben Amar See Wiki  Link


  • Built in the 16th century: "The market city of Timbuktu reached its apex under the reign of the Askia (1493-1591)., Three essential monuments ..... fortunately still stand as testimony to the grandeur of Timbuktu. ...... The mosque of Djingareyber was built by the sultan Kankan Moussa after his return in 1325 from a pilgrimage to Mecca. Between 1570 and 1583 the Qadi of Timbuktu, Imam Al Aqib, had it reconstructed and enlarged,... (The) mosque of Sankore, built during the Mandingue period, was restored ..... between 1578 and 1582.... The mosque of Sidi Yahia, south of the mosque of Sankore, was probably built around 1400...... The sanctuary was restored in 1577-1578..." (AB)


WHS on Other Lists

  • World Monuments Watch (past): Cultural Heritage Sites of Mali (2014) Link
  • U.S. Ambassadors Fund : Preservation of Medieval Islamic Manuscripts at Timbuktu (2004), Training in the Preservation of Ancient African and Islamic Manuscripts (2002), Preservation of Ancient Islamic Manuscripts in Timbuktu (2001)

World Heritage Process