The nomadic Tuareg tribe first set up their camel-skin and palm-mat tents there in the dry season, attracted by its location where the Niger River flows toward the southern brink of the Sahara Desert, prompting some to call it the point where "the camel meets the canoe." The tents gave way to sun-dried terracotta-colored mud brick buildings built in the Moorish style as traders, medical doctors, clerics, artists, poets and others settled there.
The city is on an old caravan route where Arab traders brought salt and other goods that reached North Africa's Mediterranean shores and traded it in Timbuktu for gold and Islamic books. It served as a major crossroads between Africa's Arab north and black West Africa, bringing together black Africans, Berbers, Arabs and the Tuareg people that consider Timbuktu their town. Its dynamism has been overlooked by the English expression "from here to Timbuktu" — conjuring up an end-of-the-earth remoteness.
Islamist extremists decimated tourism in 2011 when three Europeans were taken hostage from a Timbuktu restaurant in November that year, frightening away visitors. In April 2012, Tuareg nationalist rebels seized control of Timbuktu from government troops. A day later Islamist insurgents elbowed their way into the city. They banned music, insisted women cover themselves and began carrying out public executions and amputations.
On Tuesday, Timbuktu was in control of French and Malian troops, including some 250 French paratroopers dropped from the sky. The extremists melted into the desert without firing a shot. Townspeople were jubilant at the city's liberation from intolerant Islamist extremists.
Faul reported from Johannesburg