Why the Name: Nouakchott?

Map of Mauritania

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:

  • Mauritania_flag
    Flag of Mauritania

    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.

Aerial view of Nouakchott 2002 (Wikipedia)

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.

Fishermen in Nouakchott (Wikipedia)

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.

Camel market in Nouakchott (Wikipedia)

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.

Azougui: First Capital of the Almoravid Dynasty

Map of Almoravid Empire
Map of Almoravid Empire

Azougui was a town in the northwestern part of Mauritania, lying on the Adrar Plateau, north west of Atar, 450 km north of Nouakchott.  In the 11th century, it was a base for the Almoravid dynasty (this will be the subject of another post), who conquered a territory stretching from the Ghana Empire to Morocco and the Iberian peninsula.  The chronicler Al-Zuhri, writing in the 1150s, called Azougui the “capital of the Almoravids.”

Azougui was an important transit place for the trans-Saharan trade route from Morocco and Ghana.  The birth/ apparition of the oasis is strongly linked to the creation of Azougui.  Today, this palm grove is the site for over 20,000 palm trees.  The archeological site was added to the UNESCO World Heritage tentative list on June 14, 2001.

Archaelogical Site of Azougui
Archaelogical Site of Azougui
An Almoravid Soldier
An Almoravid Soldier

Azougui, as the first capital of the Almoravids, was a stone fortress with a wall and several concessions.  This fortress was enlarged with time, which explains the urbanization inside the enclosure on an area expanding over several kilometers.  The site was reported in 1068 by Al Bakri, and mentioned by several Arabic chroniclers such as Ibn Said, El Kalakshandy, and Ibn Khaldun.  The Almoravid movement was a political formation at its origin, which was born in the midst of Sanhaja tribe of Lamtuna (or Lemtouna), and Gudala (Guedala) in Adrar, under the authority of a spiritual leader of extraordinary religious rigor, Abdallah ibn Yasin.  This movement was able to unify west Africa, the Maghreb, and the Iberian peninsula for several centuries, after investing the Empire of Ghana, the Idrissides, and the kingdom of Barghawata (or Berghouata).  The site’s excavation started in 1979, and continues until today.  Its excavation has shed light on the importance of Azougui in the trans-Saharan trade.