On the way to the Dogon, Mali

Mauritania is an interesting country characterized by its Moorish and Arab influences and known as the land where the great Sahara meets the Atlantic – hence its nickname “the Atlantic Sahara”. Much of Mauritania is dry and inhospitable, but the coastal areas feature endless miles of sandy beaches supporting a diverse population of birds. The people in the desert regions live like desert herdsmen, raising sheep, camels, and goats and wearing turbans and long garments just as their ancestors did. In the south, the desert gradually turns into grasslands and forests and people live more conventional village lives.

Geographically, 60% of Mauritania is covered by the Sahara Desert. There are three regions: the Mauritanian Sahara, Sahel, and the Senegal River region. The Mauritanian Sahara is classic unbroken desert, featuring vast stretches of dunes scorched by winds and dotted with occasional rocky peaks and plateaus. The Sahel region lies south of the Sahara and is a dry and scrubby steppe region. It is not as hot and dry as the Mauritania Sahara. South of Sahel is the Senegal River region, which makes up 10% of Mauritania. This region features grasslands, tropical forests, bush savannas, and humid weather.

Most of the people in Mauritania are Moors and descended from a mixed Arab and Berber ancestry. They live as herdsmen in the desert regions, wandering with their sheep and camels and dwelling in tents made of camel hair. They drink tea and eat meshwi, which is barbecued goat and lamb. They are incredibly friendly and hospitable, which can be attributed to the loneliness they experience roaming the sparse desert. About 20% of the population are black Africans. They live mostly in the more lush, southern regions of the country. They farm, fish, and raise cows in more of a household setting. Both the Moors and black Africans in Mauritania are united in the common religion of Islam.

Mauritania’s best attraction is its national park, Parc National du Banc d’Arguin. This park has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It consists of islands and miles of coastline along the Atlantic desert shores that serve as one of the world’s largest bird sanctuaries. Over two million birds from northern Europe migrate to this park every year. The islands are also littered with archaeological sites.

The Mauritania coast, which stretches for 500 miles, also offers sandy beaches for water sports enthusiasts, especially swimmers and surfers. The best beaches are found around Nouadhibou. Unfortunately, travelers have to beware of landmines in some areas and pickpocketers. The coast also offers bird-watchers with a diverse population of birds. The waters are also rich with fish, especially around the Bay of Levrier, making fishing a popular pursuit.

Mauritania also offers visitors opportunities to tour vast dunes, deep canyons sheltered by palm groves, and spectacular pink and brown plateaux in the Adrar region. The region is centered around Atar, whose market centre is where nomads converge to trade.

Another of Mauritania’s attractions is the old historic remains found in various cities and ancient sites. Nouakchott, for example, features the remains of the old Moorish settlement of Ksar with its flat-roofed houses sheltered under palm groves. The Chinguetti is the 13th century holy city of Islam that has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site; it includes a medieval mosque and a library of ancient manuscripts. Unfortunately, much of Chinguetti is disappearing under the sands. The oasis town of Azoughui, which was once the capital of the Almoravid Empire in the 11th and 12th centuries, has remains of old fortified buildings from that era. In Koumbi Saleh, you’ll find archaeological sites from the ancient Ghana Empire. Tagdawst, meanwhile, is the ancient capital of the Berber empire. Oualata is another UNESCO designated site. This medieval town is built in terraces up a craggy peak and has been the refuge of academics for centuries with its fine library. The fortified town was also once Sahasra’s greatest caravan warehouse.

In Stone Age times, the desert did not exist in Mauritania. This is evidenced by the tools, weapons, and rock paintings found in the Saharan caves. These drawings indicate that the land was once dominated by tilled and watered fields and populated by the Bafour, who appear to have left the region after the climate changed.

In ancient times, the Berbers pushed into Mauritania from the north. They reached the southern parts of the country and as far as Ghana by the 4th and 5th centuries. In the 7th century, however, the Arabs stormed across North Africa and stemmed the spread and regional dominance of the Berbers. The Berbers in turn opposed the Arabs.

By the 11th century, a strict brand of Islam had become the dominant religion in the region, spreading as far south as Ghana. This form of religion was carried north by the Almoravid Empire into Morocco, Algeria, and Spain before the empire collapsed in 1150.

In the 15th century, the Portuguese began setting up trading posts in Mauritania, and they were followed by the Spanish in the late 16th century. The Dutch, English, and French also began occupying the region in the 17th and 18th centuries. The Treaty of Paris in 1814 gave France exclusive rights to the Mauritanian coast. The Moors-Berbers resented French rule and rebelled in several raids from the late 19th century to early 20th century, resulting in constant bloodshed.

In 1960, Mauritania finally gained independence. The country has suffered through a number of military coups, but the most recent one in 2005 overthrew 21 years of strong-arm rule, replacing it with the first fully democratic Presidential election in March 2007 since the country achieved independence.

Today, Mauritania while one of the poorest countries in Africa seems primed to emerge out of its malaise. Recent discovery of large deposits of iron ore, in addition to improved political stability, should allow this country to improve its economic situation, which has long suffered as a result of a lack of exploitable resources.