It is a city of mystery and mythology. The mystery of Timbuktu is essentially the mystery of a highly developed city which flourished south of the Sahara in the desert. Not the sort of place in the middle of the ‘Dark Continent’ associated in history with extensive urban centres. The unknown origins of the city and its early development adds to the mystery. The mythology surrounding the city is a product of European imagination: Timbuktu is the fabulous ‘City of Gold’ located at the furthest corners of the world – nowhere is ‘as far as Timbuktu’. But beyond the mystery and mythology, Timbuktu has real history; and it is a history no less splendid and important than the history of such great Islamic cities as Baghdad and Damascus.

The city was founded by the Tuaregs around the eleventh century. In his 1655 Tarikh es-Sudan (History of Sudan), the famous Sudanese historian, Abderrahman es Sadi (1594-1666), tells us how the city acquired its name. It is linked to the name of a slave to whom the Tuaregs gave the responsibility of guarding the encampment. He was called Buktu. ‘Tim’ means ‘the place of’. The fusion of ‘Tim’ and ‘Buktu’ gives us ‘Timbuktu’: the place of Buktu. Others claim that Timbuktu means ‘the well of Buktu’, the well where the slave-watchman drew water. Timbuktu became a crossroads of civilisations, a meeting place between northern, Arab and sub-Saharan Africa. Historically, the city has been home to many different peoples. Two in particular shaped the history of Timbuktu: the Tuaregs and the Songhais – they are like rival brothers who have, despite themselves, been enriched by each other’s contact. The city is marked indelibly by their respective influences.

Timbuktu directed by Abderrahmane Sissako, produced by Sylvie Pialat, written by Abderrahmane Sissako and Kessan Tall, distributed by Cohen Media Group (Mauritania and France)

In Arabic, French, Tamasheq and Bambara, 2014

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