Perhaps no other city in the world has been as golden—and as deeply tarnished—as Timbuktu. Founded in the early 1100s by Tuareg nomads, it became a wealthy metropolis and a nexus of the trans-Saharan trade. Salt from the deep Sahara, gold from Ghana, and money from slave markets made it rich. In part because of its wealth, Timbuktu also became a center of Islamic learning and religion, boasting impressive schools and libraries that attracted scholars from Alexandria, Baghdad, Mecca, and Marrakech.
The arts flourished, and Timbuktu gained near-mythic stature around the world, capturing the imagination of outsiders and ultimately attracting the attention of hostile sovereigns who sacked the city three times and plundered it half a dozen more. The ancient city was invaded by a Moroccan army in 1600, which began its long decline; since then it has been seized by Tuareg nomads and a sad variety of jihadists, in addition to enduring a severe earthquake, several epidemics, and numerous famines. Why does this faded metropolis matter now? Timbuktu’s relaxed, inclusive and cosmopolitan version of Islam still has lessons to teach the world about tolerance and accommodation.