Gao /ɡoʊ/ is a city in Mali and the capital of the Gao Region. The city is located on the River Niger, 320 km (200 mi) east-southeast of Timbuktu on the left bank at the junction with the Tilemsi valley.
For much of its history Gao was an important commercial centre involved in the trans-Saharan trade. In the 9th century external Arabic writers described Gao as an important regional power and by the end of the 10th century the local ruler was said to be a Muslim. Towards the end of the 13th century Gao became part of the Mali Empire, but in first half of the 15th century the town regained its independence and with the conquests of Sonni Ali (ruled 1464–1492) it became the capital of the Songhai Empire. The Empire collapsed after the Moroccan invasion in 1591 and the invaders chose to make Timbuktu their capital. By the time of Heinrich Barth's visit in 1854, Gao had declined to become an impoverished village with 300 huts constructed from matting. In 2009, the urban commune had a population of 86,633.
On 31 March 2012, Gao was captured from Malian government forces by National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) and Ansar Dine rebels. After the additional captures of Kidal and Timbuktu, on 6 April, the MNLA declared the region independent of Mali as the nation of Azawad and named Gao its capital. The MNLA lost control to Islamist militias after the Battle of Gao on 26 and 27 June 2012.