Aoudaghost: The Medieval Economic Center of The Sahara Desert

Aerial view of the medieval center of Aoudaghost

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, thanks to the control it 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 those of the Magreb, but also because of the definite 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 span of time.

Nowadays, Aoudaghost is believed to have been identified in the ruins of Tedgaoust, but the site hasn’t been studied extensively enough to confirm with clarity all of the information I will be displaying in this article, and overall, the history of the town remains hazy in many details, but with an understanding of the main points that powered it and of the ones that led to its decline.

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

Aoudaghost before the occupations

Prior to becoming a stable civilization, between the 4th and the 8th century, the Aoudaghost area was already inhabited by nomads and semi-nomads that weren’t self-sufficient and established, the pastoral community of the Znaga and communities of agriculturists. These two populations were separated, and they were never able to come to terms to form something bigger.

The pastoral diet wasn’t diverse enough for them to survive and live a healthy life during the dry season, which is why the Znaga used to attack and steal resources from the agriculturists. Some of the disputed goods stolen were cereals, dates, and even plants used as medicine. These actions constantly caused battles and disagreements over the territory.

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

The transition into becoming a civilization

During the 8th century, the possibility for Mauritanian communities to enter the economic and political life of the Sahelian Ghana Empire and to commerce with the area of Sudan became tangible. Numerous northern and Berber populations started to move South using this reason as the straw that broke the camel’s back, as many of them were already experiencing difficult times with the increasing desertification and drought.

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

Those people inhabited the cliffs of the Tagant for more than a millennium and a half, from 2000 B.C. to 300 B.C., where they built a large number of dense settlements on the cliffs of the Dhar, living off of the wild millett found and then grown in the area. Unfortunately, there isn’t enough information to either confirm or dismiss the idea that these were the descendants of the same people, but it seems plausible, though a long time had passed between the two civilizations.

This is the site of the Neolithic village of Akreijit, the most preserved and known settlement of Dhar Tichitt

During the 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, as 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.

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, being a vital point of meeting for 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 cultivation of wheat was abundant thanks to the many wells of sweet water and the quality of the utensils used. Excellent cucumbers, a few fig trees and some 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.

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 southern regions, rich in manpower and agricultural potential but simply lacking in good quality salt, while the latter 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 techniques of production.

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

The Almoravids and the apparent decline

The Almoravids were a Berber tribe that built an empire in northwestern Africa and Muslim Spain in the 11th and 12th centuries, conquering some of the most important towns in doing so. Aoudaghost was attacked and taken in the year 1054, suffering some sparse damages but not too many changes. The Almoravids were possibly moved 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, who was a renowned preacher who used to meditate in times of drought. The nomads were keen to listen to someone who they believed had the power to influence the amount of water, which is why it’s possible that they decided to go further South to Aoudaghost after a decisive drought year, where the more humid climate still persisted.

Though it is usually believed that the Almoravids’ occupation of the town is what caused its demise, archeological evidence doesn’t agree. First off, there are no signs of pillaging and burning to the structures.

They had no reason to tear down such a thriving place and commerce net. Then, it seems that the main goal of the Almoravids was to send away the North African merchants, which not only meant that the local merchants were able to continue the activity that so much helped in building the success of Aoudaghost, but that they also had the opportunity to increase the volume of trades.

Moreover, it’s argued that the Almoravids were able to build a thriving gold trade connection with Ghana during their short occupation. Gold became an extremely valuable asset in northwestern Africa during the 11th century, the centerpiece of the 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 seems to have maintained the level of salt and goods trades 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.

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. That same century a few streets started to get abandoned due to encroaching sands and overall damage to certain parts of the town, but 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. There are signs that 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, 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.

However, the accelerated drying conditions were not restricted to Aoudaghost. One can only imagine the shrinking fields, the contracting supplies of food and water, and the diminishing availability of pasture for nearby herds. While some pastoralists undoubtedly moved towards the better-watered south, others began to install themselves on the outskirts of the town. Once again, Aoudaghost began to take on a rural character, the one described in the fourteenth-century account as a ‘small, non-populous town whose inhabitants were dependent on camels for their livelihood’.

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, after the decline of the Ghana Empire and the imminent rise of the Mali Empire. 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.

The Sahara Desert which accompanied the fall of the town of Aoudaghost was much different than the one that saw it rising, having had drastic changes in climate and 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 ground on which numerous populations were able to thrive and set standards for the ones to come.

Visiting Aoudaghost in 2022

The main archeological studies of the site of Aoudaghost were done in the 1970s by a French team, who discovered most of the information we know today. The site consists of ruins of an apparently small section of the ancient town, enclosed by cliffs to the east and north and from a river’s bed to the west and south.

Reaching Aoudaghost isn’t as straightforward as it might be for other sites in Mauritania. Personally, even though we had an experienced guide, we had to ask around for specific directions, especially since very few people visit the medieval town, meaning that the traces from previous vehicles are often canceled by the wind and moving sands. However, with patience and a good driver, reaching Aoudaghost can easily be done starting from Ayoun.

Though the site was added to the Tentative List of the Unesco World Heritage in 2001, the area isn’t protected or maintained, unfortunately. Luckily, as aforementioned, barely anyone visits the town, and the fact that there are no clear signs before reaching it makes for a pristine and surprising experience. Truly getting immersed into the past of such an important spot is special, even if from the minute ruins it’s difficult to grasp the levels of the populations that inhabited it.

Most of the remaining buildings aren’t well recognizable from ground level, as was the case in Akreijit, but some clearer indications can be found wandering around the site, such as pillars, intact stone walls, and even amphoras. The most complete view of Aoudaghost can be seen by climbing the surrounding cliffs, as from above the ruins can be recognized much more easily, and seeing the whole scenery, with the river’s bed and the other cliffs, can help with imagining the luxurious past the town lived through.

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