What comes to mind when you say the name of the capital of Mauritania, Nouakchott? Well, to me, instant thoughts of sandy dunes, the Atlantic ocean, and the desert come to mind. So does its name come close to any of these?
Nouakchott or Nuwākshūṭ in Arabic, is originally derived from the Berber Nawākšūṭ, or “place of the winds,” and is the capital and largest city of Mauritania, as well as being one of the largest cities in the Sahara. From the different transcriptions, the name of the city, Nouakchott or Noiakchott gave rise to different translations, among which 5 principal ones:
“place where water appears when a well is dug“
- “land where shells abound“
- “place with salted pasture“
- “place where the wind blows“
- “without ears“
Chott may mean beach or foreshore or batture. Noua in hassaniya Arabic (Moor dialect) means “bay.” Thus, Nouakchott literally means “the beach of the bay.” Even though the Mauritanian shoreline does not present any bays on the outskirts of Nouakchott, the shape of the coastline is slightly hollow there.
Nouakchott was a small fortified fishing village (ksar) in pre-colonial times and during French rule. Early in colonial times, the city was a French military camp where Mauritanians were not allowed to stay. In 1958, it was chosen by Moktar Ould Daddah, the country’s first president, as the capital of the nascent nation of Mauritania. The village was selected as the capital city for its central location between Saint-Louis, Senegal, the city from which the colony of Mauritania was governed, and Nouadhibou, Mauritania’s second largest city.
Nouakchott is located on the Atlantic coast of the Sahara Desert. It is largely flat, and only a few meters above sea level. It is daily exposed to sand dunes. Nouakchott is built around a large tree-lined street, Avenue Gamal Abdel Nasser, which runs northeast through the city centre from the airport. It divides the city into two, with the residential areas in the north and the medina quarter, and shantytowns to the south. The main neighborhoods are Arafat, Dar Naim, El Mina, Ksar, Riyadh, Sebkha, Tevragh-Zeina, and Toujounine.
Today, the city is the heart of the Mauritanian economy and is home to a deepwater port and one of the country’s two international airports. It also hosts the University of Nouakchott. If you visit Nouakchott, don’t forget to visit the camel market, a very big attraction in a country where a lot of its population is nomadic.