Timbuktu is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, listed since 1988. In 1990, it was added to the list of World Heritage Sites in danger due to the threat of desert sands. A program was set up to preserve the site and, in 2005; it was taken off the list of endangered sites.
Today, archaeological excavations and cultural studies are being carried out by the Timbuktu Expedition Project, in and around the region. In an effort to research, preserve and understand the regions archaeological history and cultural patrimony, TEP researchers focus on the pre-historic archaeology, geo-morphological landscape studies, environmental reconstructions and modern anthropological studies of culture and art. It is the hope of TEP that formulating a strong contemporary, historical and archaeological appreciation of the extensive history of the area, inhabited for over 2000 years, will have a beneficial effect on the modern social organization of the Niger Bend region.
Timbuktu was one of the major stops during Henry Louis Gates' PBS special "Wonders of the African World". Gates visited with Abdel Kadir Haidara, curator of the Mamma Haidara Library together with Ali Ould Sidi from the Cultural Mission of Mali. It is thanks to Gates that an Andrew Mellon Foundation grant was obtained to finance the construction of the library's facilities, later inspiring the work of the Timbuktu Manuscripts Project. Unfortunately, no practicing book artists exist in Timbuktu although cultural memory of book artisans is still alive, catering to the tourist trade. The town is home to an institute dedicated to preserving historic documents from the region, in addition to two small museums (one of them the house in which the great German explorer Heinrich Barth spent six months in 1853-54), and the symbolic Flame of Peace monument commemorating the reconciliation between the Tuareg and the government of Mali.
The image of the city as mysterious or mythical has survived to the present day in other countries: a survey among 150 young Britons in 2006 found 34% did not believe the town existed, while the other 66% considered it "a mythical place".
In recent times, a British adventurer set off from London on an incredible journey through Europe and Africa in a souped-up sand buggy, traveling by road and air in a bio powered flying car culminating in Timbuktu, Mali.
Read more :
BBC NEWS | Africa | By flying car from London to Timbuktu
By flying car to fabled Timbuktu - not a magical fantasy, but a real expedition for two British adventurers.
Still on the Timbuktu matter. One of the world's first universities was founded in the region.
The Madrassah of Sankore, currently known as The University of Sankore as it stands now, was built in 1581 AD (= 989 A. H.) on a much older site (probably from the 13th or 14th century) and became the center of the Islamic scholarly community in Timbuktu. The Ahmed Baba Institute (Cedrab), founded in 1970 by the government of Mali, with collaboration of UNESCO, holds some of these manuscripts in order to restore and digitize them. More than 18,000 manuscripts have been collected by the Ahmed Baba centre, but there are estimated 300,000-700,000 manuscripts in the region
The collection of ancient manuscripts at the University of Sankore and other sites around Timbuktu document the magnificence of the institution, as well as the city itself, while enabling scholars to reconstruct the past in fairly intimate detail. Dating from the 16th to the 18th centuries, these manuscripts cover every aspect of human endeavor and are indicative of the high level of civilization attained by West Africans at the time. In testament to the glory of Timbuktu, for example, a West African Islamic proverb states that "Salt comes from the north, gold from the south, but the word of God and the treasures of wisdom come from Timbuktu."
Many European individuals and organizations made great efforts to discover Timbuktu and its fabled riches. In 1788 a group of titled Englishmen formed the African Association with the goal of finding the city and charting the course of the Niger River. The earliest of their sponsored explorers was a young Scottish adventurer named Mungo Park, who made two trips in search of the River Niger and Timbuktu (departing first in 1795 and then in 1805). It is believed that Park was the first Westerner to have reached the city, but he died in modern day Nigeria without having the chance to report his findings. In 1824, the Paris-based Société de Géographie offered a 10,000 franc prize to the first non-Muslim to reach the town and return with information about it. The Briton Gordon Laing arrived in September 1826 but was killed shortly after by local Muslims who were fearful of European discovery and intervention. The Frenchman René Caillié arrived in 1828 traveling alone disguised as Muslim; he was able to safely return and claim the prize.
Robert Adams, an African-American sailor, claimed to have visited the city in 1811 as a slave after his ship wrecked off the African coast. He later gave an account to the British consul in Tangier, Morocco in 1813. He published his account in an 1816 book, The Narrative of Robert Adams, a Barbary Captive (still in print as of 2006), but doubts remain about his account. Only three other Europeans reached the city before 1890: Heinrich Barth in 1853 and the German Oskar Lenz with the Spanish Cristobal Benítez in 1880.
About 60 British merchant seamen were held prisoner there during the Second World War, and during May 1942 two of them, William Soutter and John Graham of the British SS Allende died there and are buried in the European cemetery - Surely the most remote British war graves tended by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.
In the 1990s, Timbuktu came under attack from Tuareg people hoping to build their own state. The Tuareg Rebellion was symbolically ended with a burning of weapons in the town in 1996.