Tradition and Modernity in Mauritania: The Sands of the Oasis

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Part two of a four-part series.  For part one click here

For centuries, the oasis has sustained existence in the desert.  These precious pools of water, which seem to bubble up from nowhere, are nothing less than a natural miracle.  From them, not only flows life but also civilization, for they are the bedrock of agriculture and trade.

The Adrar region of Mauritania is littered with oases, the rest stops of the caravan trade that reached its zenith between the 11th and 15th centuries when gold and slaves were brought north from the Sahel in exchange for salt.  For those who controlled the oases along these strategic routes came an abundance of riches. Fortified cities, known as ksour, rose from the desert, the home of merchants, soldiers, and scholars. But trade can be fickle and just like the shifting of sand so too do caravan routes change, leaving once thriving towns abandoned to time.

The sands of the Adrar region

Today, the Adrar is still the traditional heart of Mauritania, both economically and spiritually. And while the opulent caravan towns are nothing more than rubble and dust, nomads continue to ply these sands as they have since time unmemorable, moving from oasis to oasis.  One such oasis is Terjit, and it was here that I decided to make my home while I set out to explore a world that is still very much living in the past.

The oasis of Terjit is still a place of rest
Major trade routes between 1000-1500 AD

About 200 kilometers northeast of Terjit is Ouadane.  This now virtually abandoned city owed its existence to two things, the oasis that flows outside its crumbled city gates and salt.  In the 11th Century, what is today Mauritania was controlled by the Almoravids, a Muslim dynasty that stretched from the Senegal River to the Spanish Pyrenees.  Its biggest rival to the south was Ghana, an immensely wealthy empire.  While both the Almoravids and the Ghanaians expanded their realms through conquest, they were also keen traders.  In fact, Ghana was mostly an empire of trade, rich in gold but lacking in one crucial product: salt.  Mauritania had the salt in a place called Idjil.

Ouadane became a staging ground for caravans heading south from Idjil to the Ghana capital of Koumbi Saleh.  In the 15th Century it was one of the most powerful cities in the Adrar and home to immense riches.  Its importance was great enough for the Portuguese to send a mission to the ksar in hopes of gaining access to the gold and slave trade coming from the interior.

But today, Ouadane is a ghost town.  Caravans no longer pass beneath the shadows of its ancient walls. The crumbling old mosque sits empty, the scratching of the religious scholar’s pen long since silenced.  If water sustains life, than it is trade which allows it to flourish.  When commerce dries up, civilization withers and dies.

The ruins of Oudane

Ouadane was not the only ksar in the Adrar.  One hundred kilometers to the southwest lies Chinguetti, which has managed to avoid (at least partially) the fate of Ouadane. This once important trade post remains a small town of a few hundred people. Beyond it and its small oasis are the endless sand dunes of the Sahara.  It is very much on the edge of oblivion.

The Friday Mosque in Chinguetti is one of the oldest continuously functioning mosques in the world

What has kept Chinguetti on life support is trade, not in gold, salt, or slaves, but in books.  From its earliest days, Chinguetti proved to be an effective gathering point for pilgrims following the caravan routes on their way to Mecca. As a consequence, Chinguetti grew into a center of religious study and as the city filled with scholars and the pious, so too did it fill with books, lots of books.

Circa 16th century Islamic text

Although the glory days of Chinguetti have long since passed, the books remain, stored in dozens of private libraries that have sprung up over the centuries.  Indeed, a few dedicated librarians have not only been overseeing these neglected tomes but adding to them whenever possible.  While predominantly religious in nature, these texts represent a fundamental source of knowledge regarding the history of Islam, science, and the Arabic language.  This small trade has kept Chinguetti alive, catering to the handful of imams, historians, and bibliophiles that make the journey out here to the edge civilization.

Next week I take the ride of a lifetime.

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