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Take a journey to Timbuktu

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November 27, 2001 Posted: 4:07 PM EST (2107 GMT)
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By Janice McDonald

TIMBUKTU, Mali (CNN) -- "Going to Timbuktu and back" has long been a saying synonymous with going to extremes. But you have no idea just how extreme until you look at a map and see where Timbuktu actually is.

Yes, Timbuktu does exist. In the West African nation of Mali to be exact. Mysterious, inaccessible, harsh and remote, trading caravans are known to have been passing through the crossroads in this region as early as 300 AD. The city itself took form around the 12th century, thanks in part to a local Tuareg tribe woman named Buktu.

Take a stroll through the streets of Timbuktu with our photo gallery 

Buktu created an encampment in an oasis around a well, which was called a "tim" in the local language. The fabled city grew up around Buktu's tim, hence the name "Timbuktu."

Located 12 kilometers, or 8 miles, north of the Niger River flood plain on the edge of the Sahara desert, Timbuktu quickly grew as merchants built permanent structures there. At the time the city was first developing, two thirds of the world's gold came from West Africa. But in Timbuktu, salt from the northern mines traded for equal value with gold.

CNN Newsroom travels to Timbuktu to find the history of this ancient trading post in the African desert

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Local historian Nouh ag Infa Yattara told us that just about any project imaginable found its way to the traders of Timbuktu.

"The seven products from the south were gold, ivory, slaves, animals for the circus, ostrich eggs and feathers, oil, palm and granite," he says. "Then from the northern side also came seven products. The first one is guns, then powder, materials, wine, horses, beets and salt."

Timbuktu's strategic location and valuable markets made it a cherished possession, and well worth the treacherous journey it took to get there. Rule of Timbuktu changed hands repeatedly as different empires came to power. The city came under control of the powerful Mali empire by 1330, whose Muslim influence made it a religious center.

But Timbuktu reached grandeur two centuries later under the Songhay Empire. By the mid 1500's, the still remote outpost was a bustling town of one hundred thousand people, more than a quarter of whom were scholars and students. Three universities and nearly 200 Koranic schools helped knowledge rival commerce as the reason for Timbuktu's existence.

"The book was the most exchanged product during that time in Timbuktu," says Yattara.

The fall of the Songhay Empire to the Moroccan army in the 16th century spelled an end to the city's Golden Age. Traders chose to take their wares to the coast, as ships replaced camels as a more reliable method to transport goods around West Africa.

Today, Timbuktu's population has dwindled to just 4,000. To many, it is known as a lost city.

Getting there from the Malian capital of Bamako can take four days across the desert by car, or more than a week by river. Planes come only once a week.

Even the mayor, Mohammed Ibrahim Cisse, admits life in Timbuktu is hard. "There aren't many roads," he says. "Airplanes are expensive, and using the telephone costs a lot as well. Not everyone has the means to have a telephone in their own home."

UNESCO has founded a telecommunications center to try and link villagers to the outside world, but interest thus far is limited.

Still, the city has great pride in its heritage, and many still hold value in the commodity of books.

Thousands of volumes still exist here, many still hidden away by owners like a treasured family secret.

More than twenty thousand manuscripts are still available to the public at the University's Ahmed Babba Center, named for Timbuktu's best known ancient scholar. While the contents are well catalogued, the actual storage space for books is far from optimal.

Thousands of old manuscripts and books are available for public viewing in Timbuktu.  

The dry desert climate has delayed the disintegration of the antiquities so far, but many of the volumes are brittle and fragile. Craftsmen are now working to create custom made boxes and bindings to help store and preserve the treasured books.

Just a few blocks away stands Timbuktu's largest private library. Brand new, it was funded by grants through Harvard University to preserve a treasure trove of more than six thousand volumes collected since the 16th century by the Haidara family.

The library's director tells us that the family believed it was important for people to have access to these books, because, "There are many stories. These books are very rich in material."

Even so, visitors are few. Because to many people, Timbuktu itself still exists only in books.

• CIA World Fact Book: Mali
• Flags of the World: Mali
• Map of Mali

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Updated September 21, 2002

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