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Overview

Vast and arid, dominated by the spectacular but isolated dunescapes of the Sahara, Mali is also bisected by the Niger, West Africa’s longest river, which here forms the effective divide between the Sahel and the Sahara. The Niger River route embraces some of Malawi’s most worthwhile historical sites, including that byword for remoteness, Timbuktu. Set a few miles north of the river, Timbuktu started life as a trans-Saharan trade outpost in the first millennium AD, and it evolved to be the most important center of Islamic scholarship in Africa during its medieval peak. The city’s slide into decline started hundreds of years ago, but it still ...

Vast and arid, dominated by the spectacular but isolated dunescapes of the Sahara, Mali is also bisected by the Niger, West Africa’s longest river, which here forms the effective divide between the Sahel and the Sahara. The Niger River route embraces some of Malawi’s most worthwhile historical sites, including that byword for remoteness, Timbuktu. Set a few miles north of the river, Timbuktu started life as a trans-Saharan trade outpost in the first millennium AD, and it evolved to be the most important center of Islamic scholarship in Africa during its medieval peak. The city’s slide into decline started hundreds of years ago, but it still retains enough relics of its medieval heyday to justify an extended visit – ideally arriving by Niger riverboat rather than by air or road. Timbuktu is also a good base for trips into the Sahara with the blue-robed Tuareg, who once controlled the trade across the desert, and for attending the Festival in the Desert, a highlight of Mali’s music calendar, held every January. And if Timbuktu sometimes disappoints those with elevated expectations, the same cannot be said of Djenne, which is the most beautiful of Mali's ancient Islamic cities. Here, Djenne Mosque, the world's largest mud construction, is the apex of Mali’s curvaceous adobe architecture tradition, and it overlooks a weekly market mosque as colorful as any in Africa. Other important centers along the Malian Niger include the unabashedly modern but musically lively capital Bamako, the lively colonial center of Segou, the historical crossroads town of Mopti, and remote Gao.

Philip Briggs
About the Expert

Philip Briggs has written or contributed to 50-plus editions of Bradt, Insight, AA and Berlitz guidebooks to African destinations.

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Philip Briggs for Triporati

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Facts at a Glance

  • Location: Located in the Tombouctou Region, in the West African nation of Mali.
  • Language: Koyra Chiini, Hassaniya Arabic, French
  • Currency: West African CFA franc
  • Research: Timbuktu | Niger River | Timbuktu | Mali
  • Weather: Rainfall | Daylight
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Climate

  • Best Time to Visit:

    November-June is relatively dry and cool. Other months can be intolerably hot.