Timbuktu the Mysterious – Deep inside the Malian desert

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Updated May 6, 2017 / João Leitão / 28 Comments / Filed in: / Reading time 5 minutes
Timbuktu the Mysterious - Deep inside the Malian desert

Timbuktu the Mysterious – Deep inside the Malian desert

Timbuktu

Timbuktu is located deep inside the Malian desert.

During many centuries, Timbuktu was off-limits for foreigners and non-Muslims.

Its geographic location and complicated political, religion and ethnic conflicts make Timbuktu a very hard place to get in or come out from still today.

If you visit Timbuktu, you can add this to your list of personal travel life achievements.

Man with umbrella going inside a mosque in Timbuktu

Man with umbrella going inside a mosque – visit Timbuktu

Timbuktu – “The meeting-place of all who travel by camel or canoe”

…in old Sudanese 16th century chronicles

Timbuktu is one of Africa’s ultimate travel destinations and a dream come true for hardcore/off the beaten path travelers.

Timbuktu, also spelled Timbuctoo, Timbuktoo or Tombouctou was founded back in the year 1100. It started as a Tuareg nomad seasonal camp, but during a couple of centuries it came up to be one of the most important commercial and religious outposts in all West Africa.

Timbuktu is also famous for its ancient manuscripts and the three mosques and mausoleums of Djingareyber, Sankore, and Sidi Yahia.

Tombouctou la mystérieuse

“Timbuctoo the Mysterious”

…by Felix Dubois 1862–1945

NOTE: Back in July 2012, Timbuktu fell into the hands of Islamist rebels who captured the city from a rebel group. French troops came to liberate the city and reaching Timbuktu is once again possible. But travelers have to be extremely cautious. Even before the crisis, the desert areas of Timbuktu were known to have al Qaeda groups from the Islamic Maghreb and Tuareg rebels. Kidnappings and foreigner abductions have been routine for almost 2 decades.

On this page, I gather some information about Timbuktu – a place of mystery and spirituality.

I hope you enjoy.

Timbuktu in northern Mali

Welcome to Timbuktu city sign

Welcome to Timbuktu city sign

Timbuktu is a sister city to the following cities: Chemnitz (Germany), Hay-on-Wye (United Kingdom), Kairouan (Tunisia), Marrakesh (Morocco), Saintes (France) and Tempe AZ (United States).

Beautiful wooden door in Timbuktu

Beautiful wooden door in Timbuktu

Timbuktu’s houses are ornamented with beautiful wooden doors with metal decoration. This unusual aspect gives the city great charm and positive old vibes.

Sankore Mosque in Timbuktu

Sankore Mosque in Timbuktu

The Sankore religious compound (university, mosque, and madrassa) is the oldest of the three teaching schools in Timbuktu. It was an important religious and educational center from the 14th until the 18th century.

Woman shopping inside Timbuktu central market

Woman shopping inside Timbuktu central market

Traditional hand made mud bricks drying in the sun

Mud bricks

Traditional hand made bricks drying in the sun. The majority of the buildings in Timbuktu are built with these mud bricks.

Timbuktu street scene

Timbuktu street scene

Timbuktu is a very peaceful and relaxed desert city.

Donkeys parked in the outskirts of Timbuktu

Donkeys parked in the outskirts of Timbuktu

American Trans-Saharan Expedition

American Trans-Saharan Expedition sign

D.W. Berky memorial sign from the 1st American Trans-Saharan Expedition from Biskra to Timbuktu, 1912-1913.

Amazing old door and traditional Timbuktu architecture

Amazing old door and traditional Timbuktu architecture

Grands Moulins du Mali sign - GMM a wheat flour and rice milling company

Grands Moulins du Mali sign

(GMM) Grands Moulins du Mali sign, a wheat flour and rice milling company.

Djingareyber Mosque side entrance

Djingareyber Mosque side entrance

Traditional wooden door in Timbuktu

Traditional wooden door in Timbuktu

Boy playing football near sacred mosque

Boy playing football near sacred mosque

Tombouctou written in wall

Tombouctou written in wall

Tea house and bakery panel in Timbuktu

Tea house and bakery panel in Timbuktu

Timbuktu street market

Timbuktu street market

The Timbuktu street market is one of the most lively places in the city. Many women have little stalls where they sell dried fish, spices, fruits such as mangoes and bananas, vegetables, second-hand clothes, etc.

Malian Women selling in Timbuktu street market

Malian Women selling in Timbuktu street market

Dried fish for sale in Timbuktu market

Dried fish for sale in Timbuktu market

Mamma Haidara Commemorative Library street sign

Mamma Haidara Commemorative Library street sign

Boy reading the Koran  near the Peace Monument

Boy reading the Koran near the Peace Monument

Charcoal oven advertisement in Timbuktu

Charcoal oven advertisement in Timbuktu

Modern Malitel billboard

Modern Malitel billboard

People waiting to go inside the bus

People waiting to go inside the bus

Panoramic view of Timbuktu

Panoramic view of Timbuktu

Gao to Kidal? next destination?

Gao to Kidal? Next destination?

City center Timbuktu

City center Timbuktu

Timbuktu Museum entrance

Timbuktu Museum entrance

The Municipal Museum of Timbuktu exhibits artifacts and maps to better understand the history and culture of this mythical city.

Cultural Museum Timbuktu Mali

Cultural Museum Timbuktu Mali

Traditional mud bricks

Traditional mud bricks

Door in Timbuktu

Door in Timbuktu

El Mokhtar Hamalla Square sign in Timbuktu

El Mokhtar Hamalla Square sign in Timbuktu

Architecture of Timbuktu

Architecture of Timbuktu

Sidi Yahya mosque and madrassa

Sidi Yahya mosque and madrassa

The Sidi Yahya mosque and madrassa were built back in 1440.

Sidi Yahya tombstone dating from 1463 in Timbuktu

Sidi Yahya tombstone

Sidi Yahya tombstone dating from 1463. Sidi Yahya Tadelsi was the first imam and head professor of the Sidi Yahya religious complex in Timbuktu.

Festival Au Desert poster -  traditional Tuareg festivities in Kidal

Festival Au Desert poster – traditional Tuareg festivities in Kidal

Malian house courtyard

Malian house courtyard

Peace Monument in Timbuktu

Peace Monument in Timbuktu

The Flame of Peace or “Flamme de la Paix” is a monument located in the northwest part of Timbuktu facing the desert.

This white construction with several used guns is the actual place where more than 3000 weapons were burnt at the end of the Tuareg rebellion back in the 1990’s.

Old weapons used to make the Peace Monument of Timbuktu

Old weapons used to make the Peace Monument of Timbuktu

Pharmacy sign in the center of Timbuktu

Pharmacy sign in the center of Timbuktu

Traditional wooden door and metal decoration in Timbuktu center

Traditional wooden door

Traditional wooden door and metal decoration in Timbuktu

Spices in Timbuktu market

Spices in Timbuktu market

Empty-Market-Mali

Empty market in Timbuktu

Timbuktu central market corridor

Timbuktu central market corridor

The Timbuktu Andalusian Library street sign

The Timbuktu Andalusian Library street sign

Top view from Timbuktu central market

Top view from Timbuktu central market

Panoramic view of Timbuktu

Panoramic view of Timbuktu

Restaurant wall painted with Tuareg motifs in Timbuktu

Restaurant wall painted with Tuareg motifs in Timbuktu

Boy sleeping on the terrace of the Timbuktu market

Boy sleeping on the terrace of the Timbuktu market

Wooden decorated window

Wooden decorated window

Djinguereber Mosque tower

Djinguereber Mosque tower

How to get to Timbuktu - my transportation from Gao - 22 hours

How to get to Timbuktu

My transportation from Gao to Timbuktu – 22 hours!

Read more about this journey in my Best Travel Experiences.

Transportation out of Timbuktu

Transportation out of Timbuktu

After my 22 hour trip from Gao to Timbuktu on top of a Mauritanian smuggler pickup truck along with other 18 people, I wasn’t expecting that my way out of Timbuktu would be difficult. Well, it wasn’t easy and the reputation of Timbuktu being hard to reach and tough to get out proved to be true. My 4X4 taxi broke down near Hombori, adding 5 hours to my travel time to reach Mopti.

Visual artist shares inspiring photos and exotic travel destinations. Adventure travel blogger with ideas and narratives to motivate independent travelers and audacious backpackers. Intense journeys into more than 126 countries around Africa, Antarctica, Asia, Europe, North America, South America and Oceania since 1999. Expat in Morocco – North Africa since 2007, polyglot and proud Lonely Planet Pathfinders blogger.


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28 Comments. Leave new

Is it just me or Timbuktu looks a bit deserted? Just adds to the air of mystery surrounding it.

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Wow…Timbuktu is a place I didn’t even think was real for a long portion of my childhood. Now that I know it’s real, I wish to someday visit when it is more safe. Good job documenting it and making it back safely. Upon asking my friend what Timbuktu was, she said it was an instrument. Ha ha. Obrigado!

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Interesting post! The photos conjure up so many ideas for atmospheric novels…

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Thank you Stephen, I appreciate your comment. This place Timbuktu is indeed mysterious. Have you been thinking on going to Mali lately? Happy New year!

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You have very well explained the timbuktu through the photographs you have taken during your visit. I can feel & understand the life of the place even without going to their.

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thank you very much Kumar, I do try to engage myself to blend into the place I visit. Have a nice day.

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What a pity, I am a big fan of Muslim architecture. Timbuktu, would be a treat judging from your photographs.

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Michael, don’t be wrong – Timbuktu is indeed still a treat… just one of those places that are unique. Happy New Teay 2016!

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soniya verma
June 22, 2015 11:27 pm

the photos are live and very giving, very good.

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Thank you very much for your comment Soniya I appreciate your kind comment. I’m glad you enjoyed and would like to visit Timbuktu.

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I have never traveled to a desert area. Your pictures were facinating. I could not help but notice the sky is white in every picture. Is that typical? Do they ever have blue skies?

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Hey Rande thank you for your feedback. Indeed sky is always white due to the sand and dry season – Timbuktu is surrounded by sand. Wind lifts up the sand and everything gets white. I would say that during the wet season, Timbuktu would go back to have anormal blue sky.

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Great photos and an amazing trip!

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Thank you! The way to Timbuktu was one of a kind… literally.. haha

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I have always loved Africa and Muslim culture and history. But being an american , going to any part of Muslim world right now seems a no go. Sad because , I have no problem in the Muslim parts of Asia. Anyways want to go even more now. Thanks for being so brave.

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hello Joseph thank you so much for your comprehensive feedback on this. Indeed times are kind of strange in some Muslim countries, but big part of the problem is that us in the West support and are allies with governments that do support these extremists. I hope you can someday reach this mysterious and beautiful place called Timbuktu.

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Timbuktu is always on my bucket list. I try update a lot about its recent condition, and how some travelers like you could make it to that “la mysteriuese”. Yeah, seems like lately it’s unreachable and there comes bunch of travel warning of getting there. Lucky you who survives not only from the late issue but also from the exhausting route. And btw, those pictures really are such motivation! indeed! Thanks for sharing

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hello Hendra what a comment! ha ha actually it was quite straight forward to reach Timbuktu, I mean, not a normal trip of course, but yet just 22 hours on top of a pick up truck up the desert… Nowadays Timbuktu got even more unreachable due to recent events… I hope you manage to get there some day.

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Timbuktu is indeed a unique place. I might consider traveling Africa and visit that place and I hope their government provide extra security for foreigners.

Thanks for sharing this wonderful images.

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Greetings Christian! thank you for passing by and commenting my Timbuktu page. Although the region is not very safe at the moment, I know some people their carefully did manage to reach this amazing city. The off-limits part now is thru Gao, but from Mopti I guess is doable. If you’re in the region, ask people and authorities what is going on and they will brief you about security.

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When I was a child I though Timbuktu was an imaginary place, the kind of place your parents threaten you with when you’re not behaving… Great photos and I have a personal favorite: the woman in the market. I believe it’s because it combines a lot of the reasons why we travel: food, people and day-to-day routines in a different part of the world. Being Portuguese born in the late 70’s, I’ve grown up associating Africa with colonial war, unfairly of course, and we plan to visit one or two countries some day (Kenya would be on the list for sure, for the family roots on my husband’s side). Obrigada pela partilha Joao! — Sandra

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Indeed it seems Timbuktu is on many people’s imaginary as an unreachable place somewhere lost in Africa. In fact, … it kind of still is hard to get. Interestingly that – and contrary to your experience, while growing up in Lisbon, with so many African descended friends at school, I got to have a very close contact with Africa. So, never this continent stayed away from my heart from future travel plans. I always had an amazing and happy approach of the continent. Africa deserves more than one or two countries, but indeed Kenya is one of the great places to go, also Ethiopia has to be on your MUST GO list. Either way, please, you guys should also put Morocco on your travel plans, and join me for a cup of mint tea here in Ouarzazate. Querida Sandra obrigado por tão simpático comentário – um enorme beijo do tamanho do Mundo e um apertado abraço para o teu gajo!

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We’ll find our way to Africa eventually, but for now he wants to explore the “exotic” Europe and have a complete overdose of architecture 🙂 We’ll sure drop by if we visit Morocco! — Sandra

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This is amazing, I’ve never seen anyone else write about Timbuktu, and it’s always been a place I only knew from growing up when my parents would say, “I’m going to ship you off to Timbuktu!” It was like mentioning another planet, it was so far away and so exotic sounding, it’s nice to see actual coverage on a place that deserves more than a mere mention.

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Hey Kyle thank you for passing by and giving a bit of your life stories concerning Timbuktu. I’m sure the phrase “I’m going to ship you off to Timbuktu!” would keep you away for trouble haha. For me, also I grew up with two mysterious places in mind: Timbuktu and Zimbabwe the Mysterious (never been there but will soon). I’m glad you liked this post from a rather untraveled place. big bug all the way from Ouarzazate!

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Wow, Timbuktu really is a mysterious place! I think the mud brick buildings look beautiful. – Grace

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Hello there Grace! thank you for commenting. I’m so glad you liked this little unknown part of Africa. Timbuktu is mysterious and beautiful indeed!

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