If you ever head out on a long trip to a distant, remote, or exotic location, you may likely hear the phrase “from here to Timbuktu” used more than once. This popular phrase has been used for hundreds of years.

It paints Timbuktu as a mysterious and exotic location seemingly at the ends of the Earth. In fact, because of this phrase, many people believe Timbuktu is an imaginary or mythical place. But is it? 

Not at all! Timbuktu is a very real city located in the West African country of Mali. It is an exotic location, though. Sitting about 12 miles north of the Niger River on the southern border of the Sahara Desert, Timbuktu is home to approximately 50,000 people.

So how did the real city of Timbuktu come to be associated with exotic mystery to the point that it’s become legendary? Hundreds of years ago, Timbuktu went from a seasonal settlement to a permanent city. By the early 13th century, it was part of the Mali Empire and an important part of the trade route that shipped salt, gold, ivory, and slaves.

The home of an ancient Islamic university, Timbuktu was also known as a place for scholars in its Golden Age. Several important mosques were built, and Timbuktu became an important force in the spread of Islam in Africa.

During this time, writers, including Leo Africanus and Shabeni, wrote magnificent tales of Timbuktu’s wealth. These stories fascinated Europeans, who began to send expeditions to explore the west coast of Africa. It is these old stories that likely gave rise to Timbuktu’s reputation as a faraway, mysterious, and exotic locale.

Today, however, Timbuktu resembles nothing of its former glory. It has become a desert town with sand for streets. Most of its residents live in poverty. In July 2012, it was overtaken by radical Islamist rebels, and many residents have fled the city for other areas.

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