Key Dates in the History of Timbuktu

13 February 2013

The purpose of this dateline is to give a brief impression of the past of Timbuktu, some hint of its broader setting, and note a few of its famous inhabitants and visitors.  It is by no means exhaustive or comprehensive.

c. 1100: Timbuktu is founded by the Tuareg Imashagan. One popular local story is that the town was named after a woman who discovered a well.  Her name was Buktu and thus Tin Buktu (“well of Buktu”) was born.

1307: Mansa Musa becomes ruler of Mali and successfully extends reach of the state, which is at its height under him. 

1324: Kankan Musa goes on pilgrimage to Mecca, arrives in Cairo with vast quantities of gold which cause the gold market to collapse.  And so starts the Bilad al-Sudan’s fame.  The ruler stops in Timbuktu on his return and is so impressed with the settlement that he appoints Andalusian architect Abu Ishaq al-Sahili to design the city’s first mosque, the Jingere-Ber (grand mosque).

1353: Ibn Battuta, the North African globetrotter arrives in Timbuktu.

1375: Abraham Cresques, cartographer from Mallorca (modern Spain), first reported the name Timbuktu, in the form of Tenbuch, in his well-known Catalan Map of Charles V.  The map displays the region of North-West Africa with a large image of Mansa Musa sitting on his throne holding a big gold nugget.

c. 1400: State of Mali begins to decline.

1461-62: Death of Sidi Yahya, a Tadulsi Sharif and scholar from North Africa, who settled in Timbuktu and became the Imam of one of the most important mosques of the city, named after him.

1465: Sonni Ali establishes Songhay state under whose leadership it prospers.

1493-1528: Under Askiya Muhammad, new ruler of the Songhay, Timbuktu becomes important centre of Islamic scholarship and the Songhay state continues to expand.

1526: Hassan al-Wazzan, also known as Leo Africanus, goes to Timbuktu on a diplomatic mission for the Sultan of Fez and writes his famous impression of the city.

1548: Death of Mahmud b. ‘Umar b. Muhammad Aqit, first known Imam of the Sankoré mosque.

1556: Birth of Ahmad Baba, one of the most famous scholars from Timbuktu who writes more than 56 works.

1591: Army of Sultan Mansur of Marrakesh conquers and destroys the Songhay state to control lucrative Saharan trade.

1593: Ahmad Baba is exiled to Marrakesh.  In the presence of the Sultan Ahmad al-Mansur, Ahmad Baba states “I have the smallest library among my kin and you have stolen from me more than 1600 books.”  Death of Mahmud Ka’ti, allegedly the author of the Tarikh al-Fattash, one of the famous historical chronicles of the region.

1607: Ahmad Baba returns to Timbuktu and spends the rest of his life in the city devoted to teaching and writing.

1655-6: This is the last date mentioned in the Ta’rikh al-Sudan by ‘Abd al-Rahman al-Sa‘di, one of the great chronicles on African history describing the rulers and scholars of the region.

1660: The Arma, descendants of the Moroccan invaders, sever loyalty to Morocco and begin to rule the area from Timbuktu.

1700s: Establishment of the Bambara kingdom of Segou, which eventually extends influence over Timbuktu in about 1800.

17th and 18th c.: Islam spread from towns to the countryside and Islamization becomes much more widespread in society.

19th century: Period of Fulbe jihads aiming to revivify the practice of Islam and establish states in the region.  The main leaders were ‘Uthman b. Fudi (d. 1817) who established the Sokoto state in modern-day Nigeria; Ahmad Lobbo (d. 1845), founder of the state of Massina based in the central region of Mali; and ‘Umar Tall (d.1864), leader of the so-called “Toucouleur empire” extending from present-day eastern Senegal to central Mali.

1811: Death of Shaykh Sidi al-Mukhtar al-Kunti in Timbuktu.  The Kunta are a powerful scholarly family linked to the Qadrirayya tariqa, who exert their influence in the town from this date.

1818-1819: Muhammad al-Kunti, son of Shaykh Sidi al-Mukhtar al-Kunti, settles in Timbuktu.

1826: Gordon Laing, a Scottish explorer, was the first European to reach Timbuktu via the desert, and was killed on his way back to Europe.

1828: The French explorer Rene Caillie visits the city of Timbuktu and is the first European to arrive back to Europe alive and to publish his diary.

1853: Heinrich Barth spends seven months in Timbuktu during his trip throughout West Africa; he is threatened by Ahmad b. Ahmad Lobbo but saved by Ahmad al-Bakkay, the Kunta leader of the city.

1893-97: Timbuktu conquered by the French.

1896: Le Figaro journalist Félix Dubois visits Timbuktu. In the same year he publishes the bestseller Timbuktu the Mysterious.

1898-1900: Octave Houdas, the French orientalist, edits and translates into French al-Sa‘di’s Ta’rikh al-Sudan.

1904: Ahmad Bul’araf, the legendary copyist and collector, settles in Timbuktu.

1912-1913: Houdas and Maurice Delafosse edit and translate into French the other important Timbuktu chronicle, the Ta’rikh al-Fattash.

1950s: Arguments are made by the Tuareg scholar Muhammad Mahmoud Ould Cheikh, so-called “Qadi of Timbuktu,” to establish a pro-French Tuareg state in the Sahara.

1961: Formation of the Republic of Mali with Modibo Keita as first President.

1963: First rebellion against independent Mali in North.

1968-1991: Dictatorship of Musa Traoré in Mali.

1970: Establishment of Ahmad Baba Institute in Timbuktu by Unesco to preserve intellectual legacy of region.

1970s: Drought in the Sahel.

1977: Mahmoud Zouber’s biography of Ahmad Baba, Ahmad Baba de Tombouctou: Sa vie et son oeuvre (Paris: G.P. Maisonneuve et Larose) published.

1990-3: Tamasheq Rebellion in North of Mali.

1996: Peace Accords in the North.

1999: John Hunwick, Prof. of African history at Northwestern University, publishes the first English translation of Tarikh al-Sudan.

2000s: Establishment of first private libraries of Timbuktu, such as the Mamma Haidara and the Fondo Kati libraries.  There are now many more of them, over 20.

2001: South African President Thabo Mbeki travels to Mali and goes to Timbuktu and is shown manuscripts of the Ahmad Baba Institute.  Birth of the SA-Mali Project to help preserve the manuscripts of Timbuktu.

2003: John Hunwick publishes vol. IV of African Literature of Africa (ALA) series, The writings of western Sudanic Africa (Leiden: Brill) a compendium of known works and authors of the region.

2009: Inauguration of the South African sponsored new building of the Ahmad Baba Institute located opposite the Sankoré Mosque.

January 2012: Beginning of the crisis in Mali.

  • Comments: 0


  1. dianabuja’s avatar
    dianabuja 14/02/2013 #

    Thanks - very useful summary.  Would be great if you could also provide updates on mss. events (contemporary) in Timbuctoo and surrounding areas.

  2. Brian Cokayne’s avatar
    Brian Cokayne 20/02/2013 #

    Stockport,England.Tuesday,February 19th,2013
      This is an excellent page that you have put up on here.In less than one half hour I learn a whole potted history of Timbuktu and environs. I especially appreciate seeing the different anglicised spellings,ie’Timbuktu,Timbuctoo, & the French Tombouctou.For those of us without Arabic speech or calligraphy can someone please put up how the famous Mali town is written in Arabic-that would be a great help.And if ‘tis already done simply to make it clear to us, and from which way the script is read. For example how does the Arabic name relate to ‘the well of Buktu’ tradition.Also this post is inspiring in so much as we may think of Oxford & Cambridge Universities here in UK, the Sorbonne in Paris, The Blue Mosque in Istanbul, The Alhambra Palace in Spain as centres of learning & scholarship, but somehow it’s so pleasing to discover how similar and equally authentic values of scholarship are also practised for the many years as described above in a place of modesty and not such high renown.Could any correspondant tell us if Mahmoud Zouber’s biography of Ahmad Baba,‘His life and his work’ is available in English.And with following recent Mali events via the medium of <> would it not be appropriate to suggest they stay with the story as much as ‘The Manuscipts Project’yourselves are doing.

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