The treasures in Mauritania’s dunes

The treasures in Mauritania’s dunes – ancient trading centers

Moussa Ould Ebnou

Once, Mauritania’s ksours were thriving centres of trade and learning. Today, the country is struggling to save them from sand, wind and oblivion

Waves of white, beige and red sand incessantly blow from the north and south, crashing against the purplish mass of the Adrar, a mountain range that crosses Mauritania between the Majabat El Koubra and Aouker deserts. The dunes conceal four jewels: Ouadane and Chinguetti in the north, Tichitt and Oualata in the southeast. These old, stone-built cities date back to the 12th and 13th centuries and were once very prosperous, but today they only barely survive in such a hostile environment. Ouadane, Chinguetti, Tichitt and Oualata may be drawing their last breath, but they are essential to understanding the history of this area, whose fate was closely linked to the water table and the trade routes that span the Maghreb, the Sahel and black Africa.

These cities, known as ksours–of which Chinguetti was probably the most famous–were located on major caravan routes, and over the centuries turned into metropolises of trans-Saharan trade, especially in gold and salt. The Chanaguita [inhabitants of Chinguetti] were skilled merchants who established regular contacts with the Maghreb, Egypt and Arabia to the north, and Guinea, Cote d’Ivoire and Nigeria to the south, playing an important part in the spread of both Arabic and Islamic culture. Trade caravans from Chinguetti sometimes employed over 30,000 camels carrying salt, wool, gunpowder, dates, millet, wheat and barley. They returned from the south with gold powder, slaves, ivory, animal hides and ostrich feathers. These goods were subsequently resold in Cairo, Sijilmassa, Fez and above all Tlemcen, where Venetians and Genoese traders stocked up in the two fondouks that were specially set aside for them.

According to some sources, the origins of Oualata, which means “shady place” in Berber, probably date back to a period preceding Islam. By the 13th and 14th centuries, Oualata had become such an important trading centre that its name appeared on European maps. A great Muslim family, the Maqqaris, had built a warehouse there for gathering goods from the south and storing merchandise from the north before they were resold. Oualata was also where pilgrims from west Africa assembled before travelling on to Chinguetti, a departure point for the annual caravan to Mecca. This pilgrimage had made the city so famous that for a long time Mauritania was known as Bilad Chinguel–the land of Chinguetti.

Libraries and schools guard priceless manuscripts

A major trade route connected Oualata with Ouadane, which was a very prosperous city, especially between the 14th and 18th centuries. But trade was not its sole source of wealth. Learning has always been extremely important to Mauritanians. Sunnite Muslims of the Malikite rite, they turned their ksours into renowned intellectual centres that attracted many foreign students. To this day, their libraries and madrasas [Koranic schools] have jealously preserved some 40,000 priceless manuscripts. At one time up to 40 scholars lived on the same street in Ouadane, or atleast that’s what people say. And if the etymology of the city’s name is any indication, that was most likely true, since it means “the city of the two wadis”: the wadi of the palm trees and the wadi of knowledge.

Benefiting from its location on the route between Oualata and Ouadane, Tichitt grew into a magnificent city. The town’s multi-storied houses–with blind walls on the ground floor, a door for only opening to the outside and facades built of coloured stones–are fragile remnants of typical Mauritanian architecture.

The buildings’ subdued polychrome stands in sharp contrast to the exuberant facades in Oualata, where the doors, porches, vents and windows are trimmed with white drawings against a reddish-brown undercoat. The rosettes around the lustral stones are especially beautiful. People living here brush their fingers over them before performing ritual ablutions with water that has often been in short supply in a town whose narrow streets are stifled by sand and dust.

But Oualata’s most famous paintings adorn the walls of inner courtyards. Composed of simple, endlessly repeated designs, these arabesques show the stairs, doors, windows, alcoves and openings off to their best advantage. They are usually painted with a substance made of brown ochre, charcoal, gum and cow pat.

Children’s laughter replaced by the stubborn whistling of the wind

These decorations are typical of Oualata. In Ouadane, on the other hand, the houses were built of pink or grey sandstone and a mortar made of clay and straw. All the walls in the city were covered with clay to protect them from the scarce rain, giving them an extremely sober, refined appearance. Today, this coating only remains in places, testimony to the decrepit state that the entire city has fallen into. The laughter of children running through the narrow, astonishingly angular streets and up cramped stairs between two blocks of houses has faded away. The teeming throngs have vanished forever. A single sound now breaks this realm of silence: the whistling of the wind as it stubbornly blows against ghostly facades. Ouadane’s families have moved to a small part of the “upper town,” deserting all the other neighbourhoods. And if a few buildings are still standing in the rest of the city, it is thanks to the foresight of their builders, who provided them with ledges to protect them from rain and wind erosion.

In Chinguetti too the sand has slowly invaded the courtyards of abandoned houses, to the point that the floors of formerly inhabited rooms lying under collapsed stone walls are now more than one metre below street level. But this city remains “the soul of the country,” and population loss has been less severe than in Ouadane, Tichitt and Oualata. The square minaret of its famous mosque, which was the national symbol of Bilad Chinguel for a long time, is still afoot and defying time.

By contrast, Tichitt, located in a basin at the foot of the Adrar, is much less protected from the sand. Legend has it that seven towns have been superimposed on this site, and the one that has come down to us today is irretrievably sinking beneath the dunes. Only the upper stories of a few houses are visible–the rest has been swallowed by the sand. As recently as a century ago, this oasis was farmland that produced enough food to feed a population of several thousand inhabitants. Today, the few wind-battered palm trees are dying, half-buried in sand. The final blow came last year, when torrential rains destroyed 80 percent of the town. Luckily, the splendid mosque and its square minaret, the most beautiful building of all, survived.

Musicians still sing the glory of life in the ksours

Although Mauritania’s old towns have lost ground to the Sahara in the north and the Sahel in the south, along with suffering a devastating, decades-long drought, they refuse to go quietly into the night. The creative genius of ancient civilizations is still the driving force behind Mauritanian culture. The designs on Oualata’s walls are the same as those still drawn on the hands and feet of Mauritanian women. They can also be found in jewelry, leatherwork and woodwork, the embroidery on men’s garments, the dye of women’s veils, the weave of traditional carpets and even the bills of the nation’s currency, the ouguiya. The melodies of Vala, a famous musician from Chinguetti who has become an emblematic figure of Mauritanian music, are still played on the tidinit, the Moorish lute. Other traditional compositions, such as the awdid, which was once performed as the Tichitt caravans were being loaded, immortalize the various aspects of life in the ksours when they were at the height of their glory.

Thus tradition is passed down from one generation to the next, like the beams that still pump water from old wells in the small farm plots and nonchalantly bow up and down across the centuries.


The author is one of Mauritania’s greatest French-language novelists. He currently serves as cultural advisor to his country’s president. Moussa Quid Ebnou has written two novels, L’amour impossible and Le Barzakh, published by L’Harmattan in Paris in 1990 and 1994 respectively.


In 1996, the old Mauritanian ksours of Ouadane, Chinguetti, Tichitt and Oualata were included on the World Heritage List as the last vestiges of traditional desert life. Each of these towns is typical of the settlement pattern of nomad populations. Each has a few main streets that served as the caravans’ access roads or led directly to the palm groves and cemeteries. All were surrounded by defensive walls, today reduced to a few fragments, which marked the limits between the old ksour and newer neighbourhoods. Their architecture also developed to meet the requirements of nomad life: houses were used to store goods most of the year, while the inhabitable rooms fulfilled various functions depending on the season or time of day. These four medieval towns are the last existing ksours. They were trade and religious centres as well as focal points of Islamic culture that housed tens of thousands of ancient manuscripts. Despite local and regional conflicts, drought, famines, epidemics and the end of the caravan trad e, they have survived to this day. Isolation, new administrative and economic centres in other parts of Mauritania and the constant outflow of their inhabitants have nevertheless further jeopardized their existence.

At the request of Mauritania’s government, UNESCO launched an international campaign in 1978 aimed at preserving these cities and funded restoration and conservation work, especially to save the mosques. Two years later, the Mauritanian Scientific Research Institute set up a photographic and documentary archive. In 1993, the Mauritanian government created the National Foundation for the Preservation of Ancient Towns, whose purpose is to help the towns overcome the causes of their decline and revitalize them with integrated preservation and development programmes. A project to preserve and renew Mauritania’s cultural heritage funded by the World Bank also includes the old towns in its remit.


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