(TIMBUKTU, Mali) — Timbuktu is a real place. Believe it, Twitter.
It is so real, in fact, that it was just invaded by 1,000 French troops, who on Sunday sealed off the ancient city in central Mali and drove off Islamist rebels without firing a single shot.
In the West, its name has long been analogous to a faraway, almost mythic place, but Timbuktu has served as a crucial trading outpost, and center of intellectual and religious thought for more than eight centuries.
Located on the southern edge of the Sahara Desert along the River Niger, the desperately poor city of nearly 60,000 people is a crucial outpost in the unforgiving desert and a critical position for any military looking to control the region.
But the idea of Timbuktu has penetrated the culture more than an understanding of its barren geography or lengthy history.
Twitter Monday exploded with users willfully admitting they had no idea Timbuktu was a place one could find on a non-imaginary map.
“I was really surprised to find Timbuktu was a real place,” wrote Twitter user Connor Conneally. “I thought it was a made up place like Narnia.”
“OMG, Timbuktu is a real place. I used to think it was a different imaginary world,” wrote user Simran Lahkani.
The city, once capital of the medieval Mali Empire, is home to some of Africa’s oldest mosques and religious manuscripts. It was declared a World Heritage site by the United Nations in 2009.
Despite the city’s long association with Islam, fundamentalist rebels last year ransacked the city, razing centuries-old mosques and burning ancient manuscripts. The rebels, affiliated with al Qaeda and intent on installing a theocratic regime similar to the Taliban, implemented Sharia law, ordering women to wear veils and imposing religious punishments for crimes, including stoning and amputation.
By invitation of the Mali government, French forces attacked Timbuktu Sunday. The occupying rebels fled without facing soldiers from France and the Mali Army, but burned a library that houses ancient documents as they departed the city.
Copyright 2013 ABC News Radio
Alanna Petroff, CNN
Sugam Pokharel and AJ Willingham, CNN
Ivana Kottasova, CNN