Ancient <I>Ksour</I>of Ouadane, Chinguetti, Tichitt and Oualata
Ancient <I>Ksour</I>Of Ouadane, Chinguetti, Tichitt And Oualata
Cultural Mauritania Arab States Oudane, Chinguetti: Region De L’adrar;Tichitt: Region Du Tagant;Oualata: Region Du Hodh Echchargut

These four ancient cities constitute exceptional examples of settlements built to serve the important trade routes of the Sahara, which were witness to cultural, social and economic contacts for many centuries. They are the only surviving places in Mauritania to have been inhabited since the Middle Ages. They were built originally to serve the caravan routes that began in the 11th century AD to cross the Sahara from north to south and from east to west. Sited on the outskirts of a fertile valley or oasis, their original function was to provide religious instruction, and so they developed around mosques, accompanied by houses for teachers and students. Warehouses were built to safeguard their goods by traders, who needed accommodation for themselves, while inns were provided for those passing through on business. From these elements grew the characteristic form of settlement known as the ksar (plural ksour ), with stone architecture and an urban form suited to extreme climatic conditions.

According to tradition, Ouadane was founded by three holy men in 1141-42 on the ruins of earlier settlements dating back to the 8th century CE, which had been destroyed or abandoned in savage local wars. It was to become the most important commercial centre of the west Saharan region. A bitter struggle between two clans in 1450 led to the destruction of the first mosque. The town centre moved a short way to the east and flourished again within its fortifications, becoming very prosperous between the 14th and 18th centuries owing to its commercially strategic location. An attempt by the Portuguese to set up a trading post failed in the 16th century but Moroccan incursion in the same century had more effect, and Ouadane declined as Chinguetti prospered. Following the arrival of French troops in 1909 the town developed an extra-mural settlement towards the east.

Chinguetti was founded in the 12th century close to a small 7th-century oasis settlement now submerged in sand. It grew up round its mosque, with two powerful clans occupying the sectors on either side, and became celebrated as the gathering point for pilgrims en route for Mecca. Chinguetti also benefited from the production and export of salt from Idjil, a short distance to the north. Its zenith was attained in the 17th-19th centuries, principally because of its religious and scholarly eminence, which in turn helped to augment its trading role. Like Ouadane, Chinguetti suffered from Moroccan raids, but not to the same extent. The attraction of mining developments at Zouerate-Nouadhibou, followed by the Sahara war (1975-79) led to the depopulation of both Chinguetti and Ouadane.

Tradition has it that seven towns lie superimposed at Tichitt, which is borne out by the tel (artificial mound) on which the present settlement is sited. In the 11th century it was one of the main towns of the Berber Empire, and in the following century it became an Almoravid town. It lay on the outskirts of the Sudanese empires of the Niger region and profited from lying on the trade route between Ouadane and Oualata. It became of greater importance under the Oualad Bella tribe in the 16th century, but the 18th and 19th centuries saw savage clan wars during which part of Tichitt was destroyed. Despite these setbacks, it was one of the largest towns in the western Sahara at the end of the 19th century, with some 6,000 inhabitants. With the decline in the importance of salt production at Idjil, however, it declined in the 20th century.

Some sources claim that Oualata was founded in the 5th century CE;others date it to the Arab conquest. Five main tribes live there, each in their own quarter of the town. Two important trade routes, one from Marrakesh, Idjil, Chinguetti and Tichitt, and the other from Sijilmassa, Teghasa and Taoudeni, converge there and provide the economic stimulus for the town's existence. It became celebrated when elite refugees from Tumbuktu, 40 km to the east, settled there in 1446 to escape the Touareg invaders, and gave it a high intellectual renown. However, as the trans-Saharan routes moved towards the east and the intellectual families moved back to Timbuktu, the importance of Oualata diminished. It lost much of its autonomy with the arrival of Arab tribes in the 17th century, and drought and raids from the north put an end to its role as a provincial capital at the end of the 19th century.