It’s the 14th century. Africa has a dozen famous trading posts where gold and salt are some principal items. This trade is so sophisticated and robust that the period has come to be known as “the “golden age” of Africa’s trade. While many bustling centers, powerful kingdoms, and wealthy leaders acted their part in this fascinating period, Mansa Musa’s reign has been the most celebrated, if a little romanticized.

And for good reason. Contrary to many ideas of Africa as an impenetrable jungle inhabited by wild savages, history has lifted the lid on a progressive period in Africa richly dotted by towns that were as nearly developed—if not equally developed—like their European counterparts. To a 21st-century audience, this was a startling revelation. To the Afrocentrists, it was time to pop off the champagne. Today, most of these places are ruins and rubbles, though traces still exist in Ghana, Mali, and Senegal—one of the best destinations in West Africa.

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What Made Timbuktu Great

Like a mighty gully that starts as a small, almost unnoticeable rill on the soft, uncovered ground, Timbuktu’s beginnings were anything but spectacular. Tradesmen from the far western sides of the continent, an area whose gold deposits are the stuff of legend, would come to some laid-back, meeting point to trade their gold for salt. On the flip side, Tuaregs, the nomadic Berber tribe who traversed the deserts of the Sahara, would on their journeys find a spot fringed by a well—where they would take their rest and probably refreshen. This is how Timbuktu started off on its journey to fame as well as mystery.

By the middle of the 12th century, Timbuktu had become a bustling trading post. With the fall of the gold-famed Ghana Empire, the Mali Empire, headquartered at Niani (now a village in Guinea), would come to prominence. Later, Mali Empire would bring within its realms Timbuktu—among many other notable centers—in a vast dominion that stretched all the way to the shores of the Atlantic Ocean. By 1350, the Mali empire spanned a huge area of over 1.2 million square kilometers. That’s about the size of Texas and California combined, or twice the size of France.

The Mali empire was started by Sundiata Keita, and much of the administrative credit rightly belongs to him. He was a statesman and a philosopher, far ahead of his time. Think about this: while the Magna Carta has been celebrated as perhaps the first document in western civilization in establishing civil rights, the little-known Manden Charter, formulated by Sundiata Keita and his assembly of wise men—was developed around the same time as its celebrated English counterpart. The Manden Charter, even though oral, touched on key issues such as social peace in diversity, the inviolability of the human being, education, the integrity of the empire, food security, the abolition of slavery by the raid, and—quite interestingly— freedom of expression and trade.

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Later, when Sundiata died, his grandnephew Mansa Musa would assume the reigns. His predecessor had gone on a daring trip to cross the Atlantic— almost two centuries before Colombus—and never came back. This speaks to the spirit of exploration and inquiry that usually marks the reign of great rulers, from John F. Kennedy in the West to Nikita Khrushchev in the East. Mansa Musa’s reign would see the kingdom extend its territories and consolidate its power. He also saw some of the finest advancements in learning, and architectural achievements never witnessed on the continent before. This includes the construction of the Djinguereber mosque, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and the University of Sankore. Timbuktu evolved to be some kind of intellectual Mecca, and to European battling the black plague, an African El Dorado, attracting learners and philosophers from as far as Cordoba, one of Spain’s most historic cities.

And so while Timbuktu has been known for its abundant gold and wealth, it is learning that earned the city its most enduring fame. And most of these came about at least a century after the death of Mansa Musa. At its height, there were about 200 Quranic schools, where students gathered to study astronomy, history, and mathematics—alongside the classics of Plato, Aristotle, and Ptolemy.

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How Timbuktu Looks Like Today

Today, Timbuktu is the image of a far, far away place in a long-lost period. The truth is, Timbuktu is very much alive and breathing, if not thriving. And it’s not on the edge of the world either. Of course, with the advent of European explorers, trade shifted away to the cities and centers on the western coastline of Africa and Timbuktu’s fame dropped and gradually faded out. Still, Timbuktu is a fascinating, off-the-beaten-truck destination— steeped in mystery, legend, and fairytale. The Djinguereber Mosque still stands, holding 700 years of history in its bright, mud walls and arched passageways. There’s also the Sankore mosque, built in the sunset years of the 10th century—from which a millennium looks down upon visitors. The entire city is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

  • How To Travel To Timbuktu: From Mali’s capital Bamako, the safest and quickest way is to charter a plane for a 2-hour flight to Timbuktu. A difficult but memorable option would be to board a public bus for about $15 from Bamako to Mopti, a 632-kilometer journey, and then take a boat ride to Timbuktu—for some 3 nights of hard fun.

Timbuktu now looks faded and jaded, its fame almost dubious. The car-less streets are dusty, though clean—and donkeys and camels are its main features. Where there once was a population of about 100,000 in its heydays, greater than even London at the same time, now only about 30,000 eke out a living in a difficult setting, where inhabitants either adapt or leave. Still, its fascinating mystery makes it a worthwhile trip.