Timbuktu, French Tombouctou, city in the western African country ofMali, historically important as a trading post on the trans-Saharancaravan route and as a centre of Islamic culture (c. 1400–1600). It is located on the southern edge of the Sahara, about 8 miles (13 km) north of the Niger River. The city was designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1988. In 2012, in response to armed conflict in the region, Timbuktu was added to the UNESCO List of World Heritage in Danger.Timbuktu was founded about 1100 ce as a seasonal camp by Tuareg nomads. There are several stories concerning the derivation of the city’s name. According to one tradition, Timbuktu was named for an old woman left to oversee the camp while the Tuareg roamed the Sahara. Her name (variously given as Tomboutou, Timbuktu, or Buctoo) meant “mother with a large navel,” possibly describing an umbilical hernia or other such physical malady. Timbuktu’s location at the meeting point of desert and water made it an ideal trading centre. In the late 13th or early 14th century it was incorporated into the Maliempire.European explorers reached Timbuktu in the early 19th century. The ill-fated Scottish explorer Gordon Laing was the first to arrive (1826), followed by the French explorer René-Auguste Caillié in 1828. Caillié, who had studied Islam and learned Arabic, reached Timbuktu disguised as an Arab. After two weeks he departed, becoming the first explorer to return to Europe with firsthand knowledge of the city (rumours of Timbuktu’s wealth had reached Europe centuries before, owing to tales of Mūsā’s 11th-century caravan to Mecca). In 1853 the German geographer Heinrich Barth reached the city during a five-year trek across Africa. He, too, survived the journey, later publishing a chronicle of his travels.Timbuktu was captured by the French in 1894. They partly restored the city from the desolate condition in which they found it, but no connecting railway or hard-surfaced road was built. In 1960 it became part of the newly independent Republic of Mali.Timbuktu is now an administrative centre of Mali. In the late 1990s, restoration efforts were undertaken to preserve the city’s three great mosques, which were threatened by sand encroachment and by general decay. An even greater threat came in 2012 when Tuareg rebels, backed by Islamic militants, took control of the northern part of the country. The Tuaregs claimed the territory, which included Timbuktu, as the independent state of Azawad. However, the Tuareg rebels were soon supplanted by the Islamic militants, who then imposed their strict version of Sharīʾah (Islamic law) on the inhabitants. The Islamic militants—in particular, one group known as Ansar Dine—deemed many of Timbuktu’s historic religious monuments and artifacts to be idolatrous, and, to that end, they damaged or destroyed many of them, including tombs of Islamic saints housed at the Djinguereber and Sidi Yahia mosques. Work to repair the damage began after the militants were routed from the town in early 2013.