Timbuktu: Ancient city at the heart of battle between French forces and Islamists

The tomb of Askia, built in 1485, in Timbuktu, in 2012.
The tomb of Askia, built in 1485, in Timbuktu, in 2012. Photo: Reuters

In the past year thousands of residents from Timbuktu in northern Mali have fled the city, after Islamist rebels gained control of the area, imposing strict rules and harsh punishments, and destroying the tourist industry.

Timbuktu is an UNESCO World Heritage site, and famous for representing a place at the end of the world in the English language. Here are some facts about the ancient city:

  • Timbuktu is a city of mud-walled buildings with a population of 50,000.
  • It was founded in the fifth century on the southern edge of the Sahara desert.
  • In the 15th and 16th centuries the so-called city of 333 saints was a centre for spreading Islamic culture throughout Africa. The teachings of Islam were set out in several hundred thousand manuscripts held in the city.
  • It was previously a wealthy town, and a major trading point for gold, salt, cattle and grain, as well being a centre for the slave trade.
  • It is now a very poor and run-down location, with little tourism.
  • It was added to the World Heritage List in 1988 but this status is described as "in danger" because of the dual threat of construction of new buildings and the impact of desert sands.