Lesson Plans: Grades 6-8
Curriculum Unit

Trekking to Timbuktu—Student Version (8 Lessons)

Created November 19, 2010



The Unit


Timbuktu French Map

1743 French Map of Northwest Africa, depicting the areas covered in this curriculum unit.

Credit: Courtesy of American Memory at the Library of Congress.

Salt comes from the north, gold from the south, and silver from the country of the white men, but the word of God and the treasures of wisdom are only to be found in Timbuktu.
—An old West African proverb

For many people, Timbuktu is a metaphor for the mysterious, the remote, or the unobtainable. But the Malian city of Timbuktu was, in fact, once a thriving center of commerce and intellectual activity. Situated along the Niger River on the edge of the Sahara Desert, it was a crossroads of trade routes stretching as far away as Cairo. At its peak in the 16th century, its universities drew scholars from many great cities of the Islamic world. Today, Timbuktu is but a shadow of its former glory, its ancient mosques and precious manuscripts threatened by desert sands and other factors, environmental and manmade. Fortunately, steps are being taken to preserve the city's fabulous past.

You are on assignment from the popular travel adventure show, Globe Trekker, to scout out a place for a future episode. Your orders are to go "all the way to Timbuktu" to find out why anyone would want to go there and to discover the mysteries, intrigue, and realities of life in this remote part of the world.

Making use of special investigative equipment, several ingenious disguises, and the ability to travel backwards in time, you will learn about the geography, history, and unique features of Timbuktu and the surrounding area. Your ultimate task is to make a detailed and convincing presentation to the executive producers of Globe Trekker, explaining why Timbuktu is the perfect place for the next televised adventure.

Guiding Questions

Here are some questions you'll need to consider for your report:

  • Where is Timbuktu?
  • What is the geographical landscape of Mali? How did trade develop in ancient West Africa?
  • How did the spread of Islam influence the development of cultures in Mali? What were the origins of Timbuktu?
  • What kingdoms flourished in this region in earlier times? How did Timbuktu become a center of commerce?
  • Why did it become a center of Islamic scholarship and culture?
  • What caused the decline of Timbuktu, and how was it "rediscovered" by Europeans?
  • What problems does the ancient city face today, and what is being done about them?

Learning Objectives

  • Describe the geography of Timbuktu and the surrounding region of Mali
  • Explain how the local people made a living in earlier times
  • Discuss the influence of Islam upon the local cultures
  • Describe the three kingdoms that flourished in the region in ancient and medieval times
  • Explain the origin of Timbuktu
  • Relate how the city became an important center of trade
  • Explain how the city became a center of Islamic scholarship and culture
  • Discuss the reasons for the city's decline -- and "rediscovery"
  • Describe the environmental threats to the ancient mosques and manuscripts
  • Discuss efforts being made to preserve the city's ancient past


As you prepare for your trip, you might want to visit the following websites for some general information about the history of Timbuktu:

Preparation Instructions

You're about to set off for the wilds of West Africa! Better start thinking about what to put in your backpack. Make sure you've got some maps and your camera—and, of course, your notebook. And better bring a compass and some binoculars, too.

Here's a list of topics you'll need to cover in your presentation:

Lesson 1: The Geography of Mali
Lesson 2: Trade in Ancient West Africa
Lesson 3: Timbuktu - A Center of Trade
Lesson 4: Mansa Musa Takes a Trip
Lesson 5: Timbuktu's Golden Age of Scholarship
Lesson 6: The Search for Timbuktu
Lesson 7: Restoring the Past
Lesson 8: Review and Assessment of the curriculum unit on Timbuktu

The Lessons

The Basics

Grade Level


Subject Areas
  • History and Social Studies > Place > Africa
  • Art and Culture > Subject Matter > Anthropology
  • Art and Culture > Medium > Architecture
  • History and Social Studies
  • Literature and Language Arts > Place > Ancient World
  • History and Social Studies > World > The Ancient World (3500 BCE-500 CE)
  • Art and Culture > Medium > Visual Arts
  • History and Social Studies > Place > Asia
  • Art and Culture
  • Critical thinking
  • Gathering, classifying and interpreting written, oral and visual information
  • Historical analysis
  • Map Skills
  • Visual analysis