Timbuktu (tĭmˌbŭktōˈ, tĭmbŭkˈtō) [key], city (1987 pop. 31,925), central Mali, near the Niger River. Connected with the Niger by a series of canals, Timbuktu is served by the small river port of Kabara. Its salt trade and handicraft industries make it an important meeting place for the nomadic people of the Sahara.
Timbuktu was founded (11th cent.) by the Tuareg as a seasonal camp. By the 14th cent., when it was part of the Mali empire (see History under Mali), it had become one of the major commercial centers of the W Sudan region, famous for its gold trade. Under the Songhai empire (15th and 16th cent.) the city was a great Muslim educational center, with more than 100 Qur'anic schools and a university centered at the Sankoré mosque, one of three great mosques there that are outstanding examples of local earthen buildings.
Timbuktu was sacked in 1593 by invaders from Morocco and never again recovered its leading position. It was repeatedly conquered by neighboring peoples until it was captured (1894) by the French. In recent years it has been threatened by the desertification of the surrounding region, and in 2012–13 it and the rest of N Mali was seized by Tuareg and Islamist rebels. After the Islamists gained ascendancy over their Tuareg allies, they destroyed city shrines to local Sufi saints as well as some of the city's ancient manuscripts.