Timbuktu City sits on the River Niger on the edge of the Sahara Desert in the West African nation of Mali. For most Westerners, this once great center of trade and learning is a place of mystery and legend. In fact, a substantial percentage of people do not realize that it is anything other than a romantic fiction, like the mythical Atlantis and Shangri-La. Much of this pervasive romanticism is due to tales of fabulous wealth in a remote desert that were circulated in the West during the latter part of the fifteenth century. This is a far cry from the state of city today, as it is one of the poorest places in all of sub-Saharan Africa. But the tales of wealth are based in fact, and Timbuktu Mali today still retains the fabulous architecture that was so romantically portrayed, and the priceless great libraries of learning still exist.
After the Ghana Empire was invaded in the twelfth century, scholars fled here, where they established Islam as the new religion, built fantastic mosques and palaces, and opened libraries with thousands of scrolls and parchments. These mosques, libraries, palaces, and libraries are the basis for parts of the city being designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The city quickly became a starting point and terminus for trade caravans. Like the desert city of Jaisalmer in India, Timbuktu City owes its Golden Age of wealth and power to the camel caravan trade of the Sahara from the twelfth through the fifteenth centuries. These caravans, consisting of thousands of camels, carried gold, ivory, and slaves from the interior of the continent to markets in Egypt, Arabia, and beyond. They also carried salt mined from the desert region in the northeast of what is now Mali. The caravans made the return journey, bringing the wealth accumulated from selling their goods. Also like the city of Jaisalmer, the caravan trade gradually declined with the advent of sea trade routes, and Timbuktu once again became an impoverished desert backwater.
The U.S. Department of State continues to warn U.S. citizens of the risk of travel to Mali and to recommend against all travel to the north of the country due to kidnapping threats against Westerners, as well as violent confrontations between rival drug and arms traffickers. Please follow this link
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The salt trade is still important here, and although most of the salt is now moved by trucks, Timbuktu City still sees long camel caravans depart and return. The main caravans depart in early November and late March. Each journey takes three weeks in each direction, and the each camel carries as many as five slabs of salt, each weighing more than 60 pounds. But what visitors come to see here are the mosques; they are closed to visitors during prayer times, and some are closed to non-Muslims altogether, but nonetheless, they are all wonderful sights from the exterior. Other popular things to do include taking camel safaris, which can be day tours or full all-inclusive vacation packages lasting several days. The latter generally spend nights camping in nomadic Tuareg desert camps. If you are so inclined, it is even possible to book a place on one of the twice yearly salt journeys. Be aware that this six-week journey has few of the comforts you might expect on organized tourist trips. Come during mid-January for one of the main events of the year, the Festival au Desert. This unique three-day cultural festival is a showcase of Tuareg culture, with music, dancing, camel races, and local handcrafts.