A realm of unimagible riches or knowledge, or where time stands still and aging stops... mankind always had a penchant for dreaming up places like Atlantis, El Dorado, Shangri-La, Iram of the Pillars and the like and then making huge efforts to find them. Conversely, some actual places achieved fabled status due to hazy information - like this African city, once an unparalleled hub of knowledge and trade but now a forgotten and impoverished backwater, though ending up in the English language as a synonym for any mysterious but outlandish place. And Timbuktu (or Timbuctoo) has been an irresistible goal for explorers/travellers, ensuring it figures prominently in some celebrated travelogues, has inspired some fiction, as well as at least four films (including in Hollywood) and a Broadway play! On the southern edge of the vast Sahara desert in landlocked Mali, it became a permanent settlement in the 12th century and benefited from caravans carrying salt, gold, ivory, textiles, slaves - and books - passing through it. A golden age followed - accounting for its near-mystic reputation. This was succeeded by a long decline and French colonial rule and it never regained its glory. The only reason it figured in news recently was as a new haunt for Al Qaeda affiliates before they were chased out with help from the former colonial ruler.
Timbuktu (no consensus on its meaning) was not always the proverbial distant town - it was visited by that peripatetic scholar Ibn Battuta in 1353 (though he did not linger long or think too much of it) and figured on a Spanish map of 1375. Over a century later, Al Hasan Al Wazzan Al Fasi or Leo Africanus, a captured and enslaved Moroccan diplomat employed by Pope Leo X (1513-21), brought the tantalisingly iccessible city to attention of Europe - which focussed more on tales of its wealth! His 18th century compatriot, trader El Hage Abd Salam Shabeeny, or Shabeni (who had lived in Timbuktu for a decade and in 1789 ended up in Britain by a unique set of circumstances), inspired the African Association to send Scottish adventurer Mungo Park on his two expeditions (1795, 1805) to find the city. (ians)