Why Timbuktu's true treasure is its libraries

This storied African city grew from a nomads’ camp into a wealthy cosmopolitan center of wisdom and learning enriched by trade in gold and salt.

The hands of Timbuktu bibliophile Ahmad Bul Araf cradle the pages of a 16th-century Muslim text.
Horst Friedrichs/Alamy

For some, the name Timbuktu might conjure up romantic visions of golden treasures hidden away in a so-called lost city in northwest Africa. While these ideas may be entrancing, they do not capture the true wealth of Timbuktu. Located at the edge of the Sahara desert in modern Mali, the city’s true wealth lies in its rich history. During its “golden age” in the 15th and 16th centuries, the city of Timbuktu boasted between 50,000 and 100,000 residents. Its bustling streets were packed with merchants and their camels, coming in from trade caravans that stretched for miles outside the city limits.

Today its population is about the same size, but the mile-long caravans are all but extinct. Sand blown in from the desert has nearly swallowed the paved road that runs through the heart of the city, reducing the asphalt to a wavy black serpent; goats now browse along the roadside in front of mud-brick buildings. It isn’t the prettiest city, an opinion that foreigners who have arrived with grand visions have repeated ever since 1828, when René-Auguste Caillié became the first European to visit Timbuktu and return alive. Rather than a city of gold, Timbuktu had become a city of subtler hues: the tans and creams of parchment, mud brick, and desert sands.

(Discover what the striking earthen city of Timbuktu looks like today.)

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