Tombouctou, often called Timbuctu or Timbuktu, is a city on the Niger River in the West African country of Mali. Its long history as a trading outpost that linked black Africa below the Sahara Desert with Arab and Islamic traders throughout north Africa, and thereby indirectly with traders from Europe, has given it a fabled status. Combined with its relative inaccessibility, "Timbuctu" has come to be used as a metaphor for exotic, distant lands.
Tombouctou was established as a seasonal camp by the nomaic Tuareg people and grew to great wealth because of its key role in trans-Saharan trade in gold, ivory, slaves and other goods. It was the key city in several successive empires: the Ghana Empire, the Mali Empire, and the Songhai Empire. It reached its peak in the early 1500s, when tales of its fabulous wealth helped prompt European exploration of Africa.
Perhaps the most famous of these tales was written by Leo the African, a captured Muslim who was converted to Christianity, following a trip in 1512, when the Songhai empire was at its height: "The rich king of Tombuto (sic) hath many plates and sceptres of gold, some whereof weigh 1300 pounds. ... He hath always 3000 horsemen ... (and) a great store ofdoctors, judges, priests, and other learned men, that are bountifully maintained at the king's expense."
The city began to decline after explorers and slavers from Portugal and then other European countries landed in West Africa, providing an alternative to the trade route through the world's largest desert. The decline was hastened when it was captured by Moroccan mercenaries in 1591.
By the time it was visited by European explorers in the 1800s, Tombouctou was little more than a large village of mud houses, and today it remains poverty-stricken.