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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    • Hi Byancah and Xavion, thanks for WONDERing with us as we locate Timbuktu on the map! Have either of you ever visited Timbuktu? We think it would be WONDERful to experience a place like that! :)

      The camels are guided by the folks who ride them to deliver salt. The rope is a harness for the camels. We’ve got a Wonder all about these cool animals, too: http://wonderopolis.org/wonder/what-is-a-dromedary/ :)

    • YIPPEE for learning cool new things, Dylan and Lilly! We’re very glad you’re here today! Timbuktu sounds like a cool place to visit, but you’ll have to take your time getting there! Where would you like to visit, Wonder Friends? :)

    • Hi there Elijah and Celeste, thanks for sharing your WONDERful comments today! Timbuktu is real indeed- the Wonder video we saw was actually filmed in Timbuktu! Perhaps we can visit Timbuktu and learn how to ride a camel! :)

    • Hi Jasmine and Mikayla! Thanks for visiting us today on Wonder Wednesday! :)

      Animals, like camels, are often used to get from place to place. Those camels help transport the salt from a mine to town. Timbuktu is located in Mali, a West African country. :)

  1. do they have any food to eat or drink?

    why do they have to survive like that I don’t understand that

    everyone should have food, should they ):

  2. THOUGHT: Whoa! They can speak English? What is their main language?

    CONNECTION: The thing that they are doing is actually really hard. I tried it before to make a mini door stop and it took 2 hours and my hands were filled with scars.

    WWOTD: The resident of the club is me.

    PREDICTION: I think tomorrow’s Wonder is about how heavy is a _____.

  3. THOUGHT:What is a Timbuktu and what is that white stuff on those bricks?

    CONNECTION:I have been to India before and it was really nice and I got a lot of cool things there in India.

    WWOTD:I am a resident of the Untied States of America.

    PREDICTION:I think tomorrow’s wonder will be about ancient things from the past.

  4. THOUGHT : It was about the way people have to survive in life.
    CONNECTION : My dad was born in Africa. Life was hard for him. He had to learn are American.
    WWOTD : My dad is a resident of Africa somewhere in Kenya.

    • Timbuktu is a place – it’s located in the West African country of Mali! Thanks for sharing your awesome thoughts, connections, predictions, and WWOT, Kaylen and London! It sounds like you have awesome connections to our Wonder today – hooray for traveling to cool new places! :)

  5. THOUGHT: I thought that those were interesting facts about camels.
    CONNECTION: I’ve seen a camel on a t.v. show.
    WWOTD: RESIDENT-someone who lives at a popular place for a long time.
    EX: I am a RESIDENT of Indianapolis, Indiana.
    PREDICTION: Heavy things.

  6. THOUGHT I thought it was funny when there was a kid running after the truck.

    CONNECTION: I don’t have a connection.

    WWOTD: resident

    PREDICTION: I bet tomorrow’s wonder will be about weight.

    • Hey there, Kylee and Alex! Thanks for sharing your WONDERful comments today! Camels are super cool to Wonder about, aren’t they? We Wonder in what other locations camels live? Perhaps you can do some more research about them! :)

      We hope you’re having a WONDERful Wednesday! :)

  7. comment: that was a good video

    question: how can camels carry that much mud?

    wwotd: I live at a public resident

    prediton: I predit that tomorrow’s wonder will be about mud

  8. THOUGHT:I liked the story.
    CONNECTION:I love going to difrent places.
    WWOTD:I am a resident of Indianapolis, Indiana.
    PREDICTION:I think tomorrow’s wonder will be about something heavy.

    • We’re so glad to hear that you both enjoyed WONDERing with us today, Deven and Elizabeth! Camels are very strong animals – they can carry humans, heavy bags of salt, and walk for long periods of time. However, they need their rest, too!

      We think you’re in for a treat with tomorrow’s light as a feather Wonder! :)

  9. THOUGHT:I liked the passage.
    CONNECTION:I have heard of Timbuktu before.
    PREDICTION:I think tomorrow’s wonder will be about.
    WWOTD:I am a resident to Indiana.

    • Thanks for visiting us today, Tiffany and Janiya! We sure did learn a lot with you today! What was your favorite part of today’s Wonder? Perhaps you will visit Timbuktu in the future! :)

  10. Interesting fact: We learned that the streets were made of sand.

    Connection: We like to eat salt.

    Question: How can a camel travel so long without drinking water? How much water is in a desert? Who buys their salt?

  11. By the way, my favorite feather in my collection box is a bald eagle feather.
    I got it right!!! Poor camels they don’t get much water );
    I bet tomorrow’s wonder is it’s…..Water water is heavy when there is a lot of
    it in one space……(‘:

    • Hi Simon and Max, what fun to Wonder with you! We are glad you told us about your cool bald eagle feather, Simon! It sounds like you have quite the collection!

      It’s fun to Wonder about how you would get from place to place in Timbuktu… and it sounds like most of our Wonder Friends choose the truck! You’re not alone, Max!

      Nice work today! :)

  12. I am happy that that we got to research about Timbuktu and about its inhabitants and what it’s like. I can’t wait until tomorrow’s wonder of the day!

    • We’re so glad you enjoyed our Wonder, Anthony! Perhaps you will travel to Timbuktu some day – we hope you’ll tell us all about it! We look forward to using our imaginations with you tomorrow! :)

    • Hey Lauren, great question! The salt is from a mine and is broken down into smaller chunks – this salt might even be sold at your local grocery store! It’s amazing to think about how far it travels! :)

    • Hi Abigail, great point! Many folks referred to Timbuktu as the middle of nowhere because it’s just so far away – and even hard to imagine because of the distance! However, we’re so glad you have been WONDERing with us and now you know the truth about Timbuktu! :)

  13. I learned where Timbuktu is. I was surprised with all the salt. I want to learn more about Timbuktu. This is a interesting topic.

    • Hey Wonder-buddy! We think it is so cool that you think Timbuktu is interesting to learn about! We Wonder if you can find a book on Timbuktu at your Library so you can learn even MORE! Wonder on! :)

    • Hey there, Wonder friend Jose! What other kinds of things do you Wonder about Timbuktu? Would you go there if you had the chance? Wonder on! :)

  14. I learned where Timbuktu is, I was suprised abought how dry it looks there and I want to know more about timbuktu because its cool.

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Have you ever wondered…

  • Where is Timbuktu?
  • How many people call Timbuktu home?
  • Why was Timbuktu named a United Nations World Heritage Site?

Wonder Gallery

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Timbuktu has for centuries been home to mosques that were important in the spread of Islam throughout Africa hundreds of years ago. For this reason, Timbuktu was designated a United Nations World Heritage Site in 1988.

Unfortunately, since radical Islamist rebels took over Timbuktu in July 2012, many of the city’s shrines have been destroyed or damaged. In fact, potential visitors are advised to avoid Timbuktu at the present time.

You can still visit Timbuktu virtually, though, and see the mosques that made the city famous. Check out the United Nations World Heritage Site webpage for Timbuktu online. You can read about the mosques and also see pictures of them in their former glory.

  • Authors helped give rise to Timbuktu’s mystique by writing stories about the city’s prosperity. Think about an exotic place you’d like to visit and write a story or a poem about why you want to go. What is special about the location? How would you get there? What would you expect to find? What would you do there? Share your stories with us on our Facebook page.

Still Wondering

In EDSITEment!’s Trekking to Timbuktu: Restoring the Past lesson, children learn about the environmental conditions that threaten Timbuktu. They find out about the efforts being made to restore and preserve the ancient mosques and manuscripts.

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