Lesson Plans: Grades 6-8

Lesson 6: Trekking to Timbuktu: The Search for Timbuktu--Teacher Version

Created November 18, 2010


The Lesson


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.

After a rich history as a center of commerce and scholarship, the West African city of Timbuktu began a period of decline in the 16th century. In time, like the other major centers along the overland routes of West Africa, Timbuktu was forgotten. In later centuries, stories about these remote "lost cities" piqued the curiosity of many Europeans. Certain intrepid adventurers set out to rediscover them.

Guiding Questions

  • What factors contributed to the decline of Timbuktu?
  • What myths and misconceptions about the city were held by Europeans?
  • What obstacles made a journey to Timbuktu very difficult?
  • Who was the first European to make it to Timbuktu in the 19th century?

Learning Objectives

  • Explain the reasons for the decline and fall of Timbuktu
  • Describe some of the mistaken views held by Europeans about the city
  • Discuss the difficulties of getting to Timbuktu
  • Describe how the first European got to Timbuktu and what he saw there

Preparation Instructions

Become familiar with the lesson material. Bookmark relevant websites for later reference. Additional background information can be found at History of Timbuktu.

Lesson Activities

Activity 1. Stages of Timbuktu's decline

Timbuktu tumbled from the peak of its glory to a sad state of ruin in a very short period.

  • Access Invasion to Independence. Read the first two paragraphs. What were the stages of Timbuktu's decline? Now go to Mali: Geography and History. Scroll down to the next to last paragraph under History. What impact did the development of a sea trade route have upon cities like Timbuktu?

In the years following the city's decline, the legend of the city began to grow. So did a number of misconceptions.

The image of a city filled with gold ultimately attracted a number of treasure-hunters.

  • Return to Invasion to Independence. Read paragraphs 3 and 4. What were some of the hazards of traveling to Timbuktu? Now go to Timbuktu: The Legendary City of Africa. Read from paragraph 5 (beginning “The legend of Timbuktu's wealth…”) to the end of paragraph through paragraph 9 (ending with “Laing was murdered.”).

At last, a European made it to Timbuktu—and back. But he didn't find a city of gold.

  • Return to Timbuktu: The Legendary City of Africa. Read paragraphs 10 and 11 (beginning with “French explorer…”). Why did Caillie succeed? Why is his expedition important? (He wrote books about his experience.) What contributions did Barth make to the cause? (He also wrote about his trip.) You can see a drawing of Timbuktu by Rene Caillie as well as a map showing where he (as well as Laing and Barth) stayed in the city by accessing Timbuctoo the Mysterious.
  • Now return to Invasion to Independence. Read paragraphs 6 and 7 (beginning "Rather than finding…). Despite it's commercial decline, one aspect of Timbuktu's greatness continues to flourish. What is it?


Pretend that you are Rene Caillie, back at home in France and beginning to write about your experiences in Timbuktu. Write an introduction to the first volume as he might have done.

The Basics

Time Required

2 class periods

Subject Areas
  • History and Social Studies > Place > Africa
  • Art and Culture > Medium > Architecture
  • History and Social Studies
  • Art and Culture > Subject Matter > Archaeology
  • 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