Timbuktu is probably one of the most famous cities in Africa, with an easily recognisable name that almost everyone has heard of. However, few know where it is or why it is famous.

Timbuktu is thought to have been founded near the end of the 5th century, according to UNESCO, the UN cultural agency that lists the ancient city among its top heritage sites.

The city is situated in the West African state of Mali, 15km north of the River Niger and on the southern edge of Sahara Desert. It is the major city in the Timbuktu region, one of eight administrative regions of Mali.

Timbuktu was known as the intellectual centre for the propagation of Islamic teachings throughout Africa in the 15th and 16th centuries and it is single most powerful and long-lasting contribution to Islamic and world civilization is scholarship.

It is famous for its prestigious Quranic Sankore University and madrasas.

But the city and its people became victim to decay and decline from the 17th century and Timbuktu became a by-word for nowhere in particular.

Timbuktu's founders were a group of Imakcharen Tuaregs who, having wandered 250km south of their base, established a temporary camp guarded by an old woman named Buktu.

Gradually, Timbuktu, which means the place of Buktu, became a small sedentary village at the crossroads of several trade routes.

Early on, the city attracted travellers from far-away countries.

It became a magnet for scholars, engineers and architects from various regions in Africa who exchanged ideas in the intellectual and religious centre.  

Timbuktu is home to the great mosques of Djingareyber and Sankore. It boasts numerous schools attended by some 25,000 students, according to UNESCO.

Although the mosques of El-Hena, Kalidi and Algoudour Djingareye have been pulled down, three essential landmarks - the mosques of Djingareyber, Sankore and Sidi Yahia - still stand as testimony to the grandeur of Timbuktu.

UNESCO says the mosque of Djingareyber was built by the sultan Kankan Moussa after his return in 1325 from a pilgrimage to Mecca. Between 1570 and 1583 the Qadi of Timbuktu, Imam Al Aqib, had it reconstructed and enlarged, adding the whole southern part and the wall enclosing the graveyard situated to the west.

The central minaret dominates the town and is the most visible landmark of the urban landscape. A smaller minaret on the eastern facade completes the profile of the Great Mosque which has three inner courtyards.

Like Djingareyber, the Mosque of Sankore, built during the Mandingue period, was restored by the Imam Al Aqib between 1578 and 1582.

He had the sanctuary demolished and rebuilt according to the measurements of the Kaaba at Mecca, which he had taken with a rope during his pilgrimage.

Source: Al Jazeera and agencies