Timbuktu, or Tombouctou, a city in the Republic of Mali, Africa. It lies at the southern edge of the Sahara near the Niger River. From the 13th to the 17th century Timbuktu was a trade center. From the north, camel caravans brought mainly salt and finished goods, and from the south they brought mainly gold, ivory, and slaves. Timbuktu was the center of Islamic learning in West Africa.
The city was founded about 1100 by nomads who controlled desert trade. Timbuktu came under the rule of the Mali empire in the late 1200's. About 1493 it was captured by the Songhai, or Gao, empire. During the century of Songhai rule the university became famed throughout Africa, and tales of Timbuktu's wealth, beauty, and culture reached Europe. However, by the time the first Europeans visited the city—a Scotsman, Gordon Laing, in 1826 and a Frenchman, René Caillié, in 1828—it had been largely destroyed by warfare and was a community of mud huts.