Timbuktu formerly also spelled Timbuctoo and Timbuktoo, is a town in the West African nation of Mali situated 15 km (9.3 mi) north of the River Niger on the southern edge of the Sahara Desert. The town is the capital of the Timbuktu Region, one of the eight administrative regions of Mali. It had a population of 54,453 in the 2009 census.
Starting out as a seasonal settlement, Timbuktu became a permanent settlement early in the 12th century. After a shift in trading routes, Timbuktu flourished from the trade in salt, gold, ivory and slaves, and it became part of the Mali Empire early in the 13th century. In the first half of the 15th century the Tuareg tribes took control of the city for a short period until the expanding Songhay Empire absorbed the city in 1468. A Moroccan army defeated the Songhay in 1591, and made Timbuktu, rather than Gao, their stronghold. The invaders established a new ruling class, the arma, who after 1612 became independent of Morocco. However, the golden age of the city was over and it entered a long period of decline. Different tribes governed until the French took over in 1893, a situation that lasted until it became part of the current Republic of Mali in 1960. Presently Timbuktu is impoverished and suffers from desertification. Several initiatives are being undertaken to restore the historic manuscripts still kept in the city. Meanwhile, tourism forms an important source of income.
In its Golden Age, the town's numerous Islamic scholars and extensive trading network made possible an important book trade: together with the campuses of the Sankore Madrasah, an Islamic university, this established Timbuktu as a scholarly centre in Africa. Several notable historic writers, such as Shabeni and Leo Africanus, have described Timbuktu. These stories fuelled speculation in Europe, where the city's reputation shifted from being extremely rich to being mysterious. This reputation overshadows the town itself in modern times, to the point where it is best known in Western culture as an expression for a distant or outlandish place.
On 1 April 2012, one day after the capture of Gao, Timbuktu was captured from the Malian military by the Tuareg rebels of the MNLA and Ansar Dine. Five days later, the MNLA declared the region independent of Mali as the nation of Azawad. The newly declared political entity has not been recognized by any local nations or the international community
From Sydney Morning Herald: Timbuktu's tombs destroyed by militants
A file picture of a mosque in Timbuktu. Photo: AFPIslamist militants, swinging pick-axes and shouting God's praise, have destroyed ancient tombs of Muslim saints in Mali's fabled city of Timbuktu, sparking international condemnation.
The rampage of destruction in the UNESCO designated world-heritage city comes after three months of unrest in Mali's remote desert north, which has raised fears of a new Islamist extremist haven in west Africa.
Ansar Dine and other Al-Qaeda-linked militant groups have imposed strict sharia law since sweeping across northern Mali in the chaotic aftermath of a March 22 coup in the capital, Bamako.
Witnesses said the Islamists, who regard shrines as idolatrous, had destroyed the tombs of Sidi Mahmoud, Sidi Moctar and Alpha Moya.
In addition to three historic mosques, Timbuktu is home to 16 cemeteries and mausoleums, according to the UNESCO website.
A spokesman for the group, Sanda Ould Boumama, vowed: "Ansar Dine will today destroy every mausoleum in the city. All of them, without exception."
Alissandra Cummins, the chair of UNESCO's executive committee, said: "This is tragic news for us all.
"I appeal to all those engaged in the conflict in Timbuktu to exercise their responsibility - for the sake of future generations, spare the legacy of their past."
Mali's government in Bamako denounced the "destructive fury", comparing it to war crimes and threatened action on the national and international level.
Former colonial power France condemned "the systematic violation of these places of reverence and prayer" and appealed "for an end to this violence and this intolerance".
A witness said that early Saturday morning, about "30 fighters of Ansar Dine moved towards the mausoleum of Sidi Mahmoud" in the city's north.
"Some had guns. They did not shoot. Then they started shouting 'Allahu Akbar! Allahu Akbar!' (God is greatest! God is greatest!) And with pick-axes and hoes, they started to break down the mausoleum."
The Ansar Dine spokesman suggested Saturday's action was in retaliation for a UNESCO decision on Thursday to put the World Heritage site, a cradle of Islamic learning founded in the fifth century, on its endangered list.
"God is unique. All of this is haram (forbidden in Islam). We are all Muslims. UNESCO is what?" he said, declaring that Ansar Dine was acting "in the name of God".
UNESCO's general director, Irina Bokova, confirmed that Islamist militants from the Ansar Dine group had destroyed three sacred tombs in Timbuktu, declaring in a statement that "there is no justification for such wanton destruction".
Witnesses in Timbuktu said that the gangs had destroyed the mausoleum of a saint whose 15th century tomb was already desecrated in May by members of Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Magreb, another of the groups in control in the north.
The UN cultural agency said its decision to place both the town and the nearby Tomb of Askia in Gao on its List of World Heritage in Danger "aims to raise cooperation and support for the sites threatened by the armed conflict".