This desert land, where wealth is still measured in camels and nomads wander with their herds across barren dunes in search of water, isn’t an easily-accessible vacation spot. Located on the Atlantic edge of the Sahara desert, Mauritania is just south of Morocco and north of Senegal, and features hot dry summers, clear skies in winter, and a lack of development that lends itself to adventure travel. But for those looking for something authentic and unusual, Mauritania offers its guests a glimpse of a forgotten time and a chance to experience an ancient culture that is rapidly disappearing from the face of the earth.
Mauritania’s Ancient Islamic Centers: Chinguetti and Oudane
These two cities are located relatively close to each other, north and east of the capital city of Nouakchott. Both were founded in the 12th century, and were instrumental in the spread of Islam throughout the region. Both feature ancient mosques and centers of learning, and in the past sent out Islamic missionaries into the surrounding countryside.
While tourism in Mauritania is still in its developing stage, both cities boast several rather euphemistically called “museums.” Visiting them usually involves going to a tiny general store and finding a man drinking tea. He goes back to his house, sits his guests on a thin faded rug, then begins to pull out items for exhibition: old leather camel saddles, rusty sabers, or thick silver jewelry which was put on the ankles of girls who had reached marriageable age. Most interesting of all are box after box of crumbling, beautiful, handwritten copies of the Koran. These centuries-old manuscripts are often kept casually in flimsy cardboard boxes in a cupboard, not protected from air or heat or bugs.
Chinguetti in particular has a fine collection of these manuscripts and is becoming known for its libraries, where attempts are being made to protect these historic treasures.
Thanks to Peace Corps and various non-governmental organizations, both towns now have solar panels and intermittent electricity. Visitors can still temporarily escape civilization, but with the chance to enjoy a cold Coke and recharge their cell phones. At night, they gasp in amazement at the profusion of the stars.
The ancient cities and their walls still stand, somewhat crookedly, made of piles of expertly-stacked rock. It is fascinating to wander the curving paths and look at the buildings; some collapsed, others tottery, most built of red-brown shale fitted without mortar. Guides warn guests not to touch any of the walls, lest they crumble on their heads.
Oudane was initially built on the side of the plateau, and on the progression up the steep, winding paths, the houses gradually grow newer. A centuries-old mosque at the top is still in use. The modern city is on the level at the top, exposed to the winds of heaven which scour it daily.
It’s a beautiful part of the desert. Chinguetti is surrounded by dunes, their lines swooping and curving, outlined sharply by the setting sun. Near Ouadane, the land rises from golden dunes into black and red shale plateaus, and falcons float above canyons lined with the spiky green of the date palms. Most people have small gardens at the base of the mountain or nearby oasis with date palms, mint (necessary for tea), and in the winter, some vegetables. Their wells are sometimes equipped with pumps provided by various charities. They have dug the sand into channels, so they can water efficiently. These gardens are protected from roaming goats and hungry camels by fences made of palm fronds and thorn bushes.
In spite of a lack of material possessions, villagers are rich in hospitality. Treatment of strangers reflects on the honor of the village as a whole, and tourists are often invited for dinners set in rocky courtyards under the thick stars of the desert.
The Town of Oulata: Uniquely Decorated with Swirling Designs and Geometric Patterns
Just arriving in this remote location gives a visitor a sense of accomplishment, as it can only be reached by four wheel drive. Located deep in the Sahara desert, nearly as far as the Malian border, Oulata’s roads are little more than tracks through the sand and rock. But Oulata is charming in its own right. The woman of Oulata paint traditional designs on walls with their fingers; swirls and imperfect lines and squiggles. These designs are drawn around the outside of doors and windows, and also used as interior design. It is the only city in Mauritania with these symbols, which experts claim revolve around ancient fertility rites and occult protections.
Oulata features several auberges where westerners will be comfortable, with flush toilets and basic furnishings in private rooms. Setting out to tour the city next day, tourists will be surrounded by eager would-be guides and crowds of curious children. The village is charming, filled with unexpected findings round corners, twisting alleyways, and residents eager to invite strangers in for the requisite three cups of sweet mint tea. Women’s cooperatives make and sell the clay models of the city’s distinctive houses and clay pillars and bowls. They are beautiful work but be warned: they are extremely fragile, and need to be well padded to survive their trip home.
Travelers wanting to experience something unique and unforgettable will enjoy all that historic Mauritania has to offer.