All the way to Timbuktu

Timbuktu is, for the record, in the West African country of Mali. But how did it end up immortalized in Western idiom? Pamela Toler at Wonders and Marvels explains. Here's a hint: In the 14th century, the city was one of the major book-making centers in the entire world.


  1. Maggie?  “book-making”?  As in printing and binding reading material, or as in gambling?  I’m gonna need either a different phrase or a context clue, because my (terrible, uneducated) guess of 14th century Mali might include muslim scholars or an inland refuge for pirates.  I will now click the link to determine which, but why not eschew obfuscation altogether, eh?

  2. It wasn’t just books. It was the center of trans-Sahara trade, a major center of learning, and for a very long time, completely unvisited by any Europeans. They heard about it, but they’d never been there. The first couple of European explorers couldn’t find it or where killed while trying to find it. The first who reached it died there. The first who got back (by pretending to be a muslim scholar and being so educated on Islam that he was asked to preach in the mosque) died two weeks later from malaria. The place was world famous yet impossible to reach.

    I’ve been there a couple of years ago. Beautiful little town. And the best way to get there is the hard way. It has an airfield, but that’s cheating. We took the boat from the nearest town along the Niger and it took us 3 days. The way back was an entire day through the desert by Toyota LandCruiser (they have no other cars there).

    Greatest vacation of my life. Recent news about Mali saddens me enormously. They’re nice people mostly.

  3. Once of the other things that Timbuktu’s famous for – musicians. 
    Playing music, at ‘walking speed’:

  4. My first encounter with Timbuktu was, as a child, reading Hop on Pop. I remember looking forward to that page emblazoned with the words “Constantinople and Timbuktu”.

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