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Flag Source: CIA World Factbook
The mystical city of Timbuktu: most people have heard this strange name, yet few could actually place it on a map. Timbuktu is one of the northernmost cities in Mali, sitting on the edge of the Sahara desert. Once rumored to be a city of gold, Timbuktu attracted explorers from all over the world, from Ibn Battuta of Morocco in the 14th century to René Caillié of France in the 19th century. The city’s spiritual reputation and isolated location continue to entice travelers keen to visit one of the largest centers of Islamic learning in the world, or longing to find themselves in the desert.
The Top 8: What to Do in Timbuktu
1. Ahmed Baba Center:
Founded in 1970 by the Malian government in collaboration with UNESCO, this famous institute for higher Islamic learning is home to 15,000 books and manuscripts, the oldest of which dates back to 1241. Texts on Islamic theory, astronomy, science, and philosophy can all be found in this library, representing Timbuktu’s long history as an intellectual, spiritual, and academic gathering place.
2. Al Mansur Korey Museum:
This traditional Songhai house is open to the public, displaying Berber and Arab artifacts. Walk through the kitchen, weapons room, and bedrooms, and imagine the house in all its glory hundreds of years ago.
3. Sankoré University:
One of the oldest universities in the world, Sankoré was founded in 989 a.d. by the chief judge of Timbuktu. It was built within the Sankoré mosque and became a major place of Islamic learning drawing students from around the Muslim world. In the 12th century, there were 25,000 students studying at Sankoré, more than twice the indigenous population of Timbuktu.
4. Djinguereber Mosque:
Considered by many to be one of the most beautiful mosques in all of Mali, it is the oldest in Timbuktu, built in 1325. Entry is forbidden to tourists, but it is definitely worth admiring the clay structure from the outside.
5. Monument de la Paix:
This monument, located in the northern end of the city, was inaugurated in 1996, representing the end of ethnic rebellions in the north of Mali. More than 3,000 people gathered for the ceremony, including representatives of the African Union and United Nations, President Alpha Oumar Konaré, and the Ghanaian president.
Set aside several days for a trip to this desert town lost among the dunes of the Sahara. Araouane is located 269 kilometers from Timbuktu and the easiest way to reach it is by four-by-four. The journey to Araouane is breathtaking, a sea of sparkling sand sparsely dotted with small nomadic camps.
7. Desert Camel Excursions:
For the particularly adventurous, camel trips anywhere from two hours to 15 days are easy to arrange. Follow the path of the Azalai salt caravans to Araouane or Taoudénit. Experienced guides lead the excursions and make sleeping arrangements (under the stars in Tuareg camps) and provide food (dried meat and goat’s milk).
8. Camping in the Dunes:
Enjoying a meal on the dunes, and a night sleeping on a thin mat under the stars in the desert, is an amazing experience for those who don’t mind waking up with sand in their ears. Local guides can organize these camp-outs in the dunes nearby and among the Toureg camps.
When to Go
Though Mali is, by many standards, hot all year round, it does have three seasons. February through June is very dry and hot, peaking in March through May. The rainy season lasts from July through August. November through February are somewhat cooler and drier; we recommend that period for travelers who struggle with high temperatures.