When we see and talk about early civilizations in West Africa, we usually affirm that the reason a population chose a place to inhabit was the presence of a humid climate with a good quantity of water, possibly protected by the infamous and increasing winds and by the approaching desertification.

The Aoudaghost area was first inhabited for this reason as well, but at a certain point during its history, it started becoming a town that was sought after for its economic, commercial, and political opportunities.

Aoudaghost, at the border of the Hodh El Gharbi and Tagant regions, was one of the most important and thriving economic centers of the Medieval Sahara Desert, with Oualata and Ouadan.

These settlements gained their power thanks to the control they had over the salt and gold trades with the civilizations of the geographical area known as Sudan, to the South of Mauritania and Mali, and with those of the Maghreb, as well as because of the unprecedented level of luxury it was able to reach compared to the rest of Mauritania.

The timeline of Aoudaghost’s occupations is surprisingly extended and complex, ranging from the 7th/8th century to the 17th century A.D., with 7 different occupations during this period.

Nowadays, Aoudaghost is believed to have been identified in the ruins of Tedgaoust, and despite having a definite understanding of the main points that contributed to its greatness and of the ones that led to its decline, the history of the town remains shrouded in mystery.

To understand the complex situation of Aoudaghost, we must take a look into the area before it became a populated town.

COORDINATES     17°25’27" N  10°24’36" W


Aoudaghost MAP

Aoudaghost before the occupations

Before becoming a stable civilization, between the 4th and the 8th century, the Aoudaghost area was already inhabited by nomads and semi-nomads, the pastoral community of the Znaga and a community of farmers.
These two populations were separated, and they were never able to unite and grow into a more complex civilization.

The pastoral diet wasn’t diverse enough for the Znaga to survive and live a healthy life during the dry season, which is why they used to attack and steal resources from the farmers.

Some of the disputed goods stolen were cereals, dates, and even medicinal plants. These actions constantly caused battles and disagreements over the territory, driving the two groups further apart.

During the same period, in the Adrar region, a population known as Bafur was able to grow a wealthy, though not numerous, sedentary community of date palms cultivators. Over time, part of the Bafurs was engulfed by the Berbers moving south towards Aoudaghost, bringing their knowledge and experience in something that the southern regions were lacking, such as date palms.

Aoudaghost Mauritania

photo by Luca Abbate




The Transition into a Civilization

During the 8th century, trading routes increasingly expanded, enabling the possibility for Mauritanian communities to enter the economic and political life of the Sahelian Ghana Empire, and commerce with the area of Sudan became tangible.

Numerous Maghreb and Berber populations started to move South in search of a better life, as many of them were already experiencing difficult times with the increasing desertification and drought of the northern latitudes.

It’s believed that the first people to civilize the area and make Aoudaghost an actual town were the Gangara, a well-established and organized agricultural population that used to build dense villages in upland locations and thrived off of the abundant growth of cereals such as millet, mostly through the use of a method of dry agriculture, based on rainfalls.

Mauritania '23 - LucaOnAdventure (3 di 3)

photo by Luca Abbate


By this description, the Gangara very closely resemble one of the first populations able to create settlements in Central Mauritania, the people of Dhar Tichitt.

That civilization inhabited the legendary cliffs of the Tagant region for almost two millennia, from around 2300 B.C. to 500 B.C., where they built a large number of dense settlements on the top of the Dhar, living off of the wild millett found and then grown in the area. There isn’t enough information to either confirm or dismiss the idea that the first inhabitants of Aoudaghost were the descendants of these people, but it seems plausible. It certainly is fascinating.

During its first two occupations, ranging from the 7th to the 9th century, Aoudaghost was a simple chiefdom, with only one level of authority and control above the community’s level. These three centuries were characterized by regular and growing trades between herders, farmers, artisans, and the rest of the community.

The step of trading with outsiders was going to be taken in the third occupation, where the town would grow true urban and economic systems.

The organization and experience of the people inhabiting Aoudaghost in the first two occupations permitted it to grow beyond many other places in the region, going from knowing only terracing and semi-nomadic settlements to having its first permanent mud-brick buildings with enclosures and wells.

Mauritania '23 - LucaOnAdventure (7 di 9)

photo by Luca Abbate



The Peak of Aoudaghost

The third occupation (10th-11th century) is considered the peak of Aoudaghost. It was during this period that the town gained great importance in the commerce of North-West Africa, becoming a vital meeting point between the Mediterranean and Sudanese cultures and crafts.

Al-Bakri, a legendary historian of the 11th century, described Aoudaghost as a large town surrounded by gardens of date palms, where wheat cultivation was abundant thanks to the many wells of sweet water and the quality of the utensils used.

Excellent cucumbers, fig trees, vines, large quantities of henna, numerous sheep and cattle, and even honey imported from Sudan, are the types of wealth and luxury that the people of Aoudaghost experienced. Some reports say that the populated area covered around 25 thousand square meters.

The town also had a big Mosque and many smaller ones, a market full of people at all times, and slaves so numerous that each family possibly had a thousand of them.

Mauritania '23 - LucaOnAdventure (5 di 9)

photo by Luca Abbate




Yes, slaves actually played a major role in Aoudaghost’s success. During the trade era between Aoudaghost and Sudan, the former used to supply salt from the Awlil and Ijil mines to the southern Sahelian regions, rich in manpower and agricultural potential but simply lacking in quality salt.

In contrast, Sudan's populations used to send slaves as compensation. Sudanese slaves were highly sought after as concubines and cooks, but at Aoudaghost they used to cover intense labor jobs such as field workers, while the manual laborers were also well-diggers, domestics, and artisans.

As vague as our sense of this population is, the association of several groups of mixed ethnicity and different classes is very much in keeping with the town’s geographical position and its Sudanese-influenced culture, taste, and production techniques.

The numerous buildings with Mediterranean influence also show that merchants and, possibly, small communities of Maghreb people used to live there.

It was during this time that Aoudaghost developed a full-blown industrial area, with furnaces and buildings for the production of tools, building materials, ceramics, and jewelry, able to sustain a regional market supplying different regions of West Africa up until its decline in the 13th century.

Mauritania '23 - LucaOnAdventure (3 di 9)

photo by Luca Abbate


The Almoravids Conquest of Aoudaghost

The Almoravids were a Berber tribe that built an empire in Northwestern Africa and Muslim Spain in the 11th and 12th centuries.

They attacked and took Aoudaghost in the year 1054, causing some sparse damages but not too many changes. The Almoravids possibly decided to transfer from the North due to a particular year of drought.

Ibn Yasin, the spiritual leader of the Almoravids, had a teacher,  Wajjaj Zalwl, a renowned preacher who used to meditate in times of drought. The nomads were keen to listen to him, someone who they believed had the power to influence the amount of water they got. For this reason, it's believed that the Almoravids decided to go further South to Aoudaghost, where the more humid climate still persisted, after a decisive dry year.

Though it is usually believed that the Almoravids’ occupation of the town is what caused its demise, archeological evidence doesn’t agree.

Mauritania '23 - LucaOnAdventure (9 di 9)

photo by Luca Abbate

First off, there are no signs of pillaging and burning to the structures.
More importantly, the Almoravids had no reason to tear down such a thriving community and commerce net.

Then, it seems that the main goal of the Almoravids was to send away the North African merchants, resulting not only in the local merchants being able to continue the activity that helped in building the success of Aoudaghost, but also in the opportunity to increase the volume of trades.

During their short occupation, the Almoravids were able to build a thriving gold trade connection with Ghana. Gold became an extremely valuable asset in northwestern Africa during the 11th century, as the centerpiece of commerce of the trans-Saharan routes. Gold was taken from countries located upstream on the Senegal and Niger rivers, then exchanged for North African products, of which one of the main ones was salt.

The position of Aoudaghost was once again exploited for this commerce, serving as the perfect intermediary.

Aoudaghost maintained the level of salt and goods trade through the 12th and 13th centuries, as is suggested by the finds in the whole area of Central Mauritania from that period. However, there is no doubt that the decline of Aoudaghost was near, and as it often happened in the Sahara, one of the main reasons was the greater force of nature.

Mauritania '23 - LucaOnAdventure (1 di 3)

photo by Luca Abbate


The Decline of Aoudaghost and the Last Occupations

From the 12th century onwards, Aoudaghost started going through deep changes in climate and desertification, an uncontrollable phenomenon that has been the demise of many civilizations throughout history.

That same century a few streets started to get abandoned due to encroaching sands and overall damage to certain parts of the town. Still, it was the 13th century that saw the size of Aoudaghost’s urban area shrink to a fraction due to the definite desertification that was hitting it.

At the same time, water also started to become a problem.
Some signs indicate that towards the end of the Almoravids’ occupation many wells had to be changed and reinforced, but, more importantly, the archeological evidence shows that floods and dry seasons started to alternate more drastically, creating a serious possibility for the breeding of diseases such as Malaria and the overall pollution of the water. The quality of life had severely diminished.

The accelerating drying conditions were not restricted to Aoudaghost. One can only imagine the shrinking fields, the contracting supplies of food and water, and the diminishing pasture availability for nearby herds.

While some farmers undoubtedly moved towards the better-watered south, others began to install themselves on the outskirts of the town.

For the first time since its rise to power, Aoudaghost began to take on a rural character, quickly going through an inevitable downfall.

Mauritania '23 - LucaOnAdventure (1 di 9)

photo by Luca Abbate


But there also were some commerce-driven reasons for the fall of Aoudaghost.

The Znaga people were the ones who followed up the Almoravids’ occupation, and though they also had no interest in disrupting the economic model Aoudaghost was following, the town had started to head towards the point of no return.

An enormous factor in the decline was the area of importance for commerce with other Saharan and Sahelian populations, which in the 13th century moved east, towards Timbuktu and the Niger bend. At that time the Ghana Empire had fallen, and the Mali Empire was on the rise.
For this reason, the towns of Oualata, in the southeast of Mauritania, and Ouadane, a town with easier access to the salt mines, surpassed Aoudaghost in importance.

All the factors at play rapidly changed Aoudaghost, described in a 14th-century account as a ‘small, non-populous town whose inhabitants were dependent on camels for their livelihood’.

The Sahara Desert which accompanied the fall of the town of Aoudaghost was much different than the one that saw it rising, having gone through drastic changes in climate, expansions, and diversifications in its economy.

By the end of the 14th century, Aoudaghost was abandoned, after more than six centuries of being the center-point of the Mauritanian commerce with the south, after knowing a level of luxury that no other part of central Sahara had experienced, and after being the model for numerous populations who were able to thrive and set standards for the ones to come.

Mauritania '23 - LucaOnAdventure (6 di 9)

photo by Luca Abbate

Aoudaghost Today

A team of French archeologists conducted the only large-scale excavations in Aoudaghost between the 1960s and the 1970s, accounting for most of the discoveries we know.

Since 2001, the site has been on the UNESCO World Heritage Tentative List.

Today, Aoudaghost is in a state of complete abandonment. The remains of the once-thriving town are concentrated in the area most protected by the wind and sand, with several walls and fortifications yet to be fully englobed by the desert.
From the adjacent cliff, the current state of Aoudaghost can be seen in its entirety, but only the mind can imagine the Aoudaghost that served as an economic and cultural hub for the Sahara


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