Salt, Sand And Slavery: On the Trail of Mauritania’s Ancient Caravan Routes
(text and photos by Aldo Pavan)
THE sands of Oualata. This is where we begin, eyes closed against the dazzling light of the sun that dominates these yellow expanses. Perhaps it’s better not to see the decline of this great lady of the desert with her walls like blank backdrops where dark shadows are cast from the past: silhouettes of women, children chasing each other. Suddenly, they vanish and their voices are lost in the alleys, mixed with the dust. Yet this was once a city full of trade and prosperity. Today, the past splendour is reﬂected in the faded decorations of the doors. Everything seems to have turned to dust: the riches, the palaces of the merchants, the great caravans of camels.
Oualata is a city in southern Mauritania. From here, we begin a long journey that leads north through the Sahara along what was the ancient caravan route of gold merchants, as they took a gamble between the sands. This ancient track is named al-trik Lemtouni, or the “men’s track”, and it was the westernmost of the trans-Saharan caravan routes. All kinds of goods passed this way, but the most valuable assets were gold, salt and slaves from the Gulf of Guinea. Camels also carried ebony and ivory to Morocco. When the caravans returned to the interior of Africa, they were laden with fabrics, horses, weapons, copper and glass beads sought after in Venice.
That wasn’t the only cargo they brought back with them. In addition to trade goods, the caravans also brought back the science of the Maghreb Arab world, in southern Spain (the ancient al-Andalus) and the Middle East. The notables of the cities bought texts of literature, medicine, science and law, and paid with gold dust. Without these transactions the Arab civilisation would never have come to dominate the black African animist cultures. Without these movable universities transported by camel, Islamic Africa would never have come to pass. Today, along the old track, cities preserve decayed ancient texts as relics of the past. They are precious manuscripts, remnants of a treasure that is disappearing in the sands of the desert.
From Oualata, the caravans set out with thousands of camels. Ibn Battuta, the Arab Marco Polo, was among the ﬁrst to describe the trans-Saharan trade, travelling with a caravan of 12,000 camels. During our trip, we relied on guides from the desert tribes: they knew the wells, oases and above all, they were able to ﬁnd their way in the vast desert in the midst of frequent sandstorms. The wind, called the harmattan, is at home here, especially in winter.
We leave the city, following the western caravan route. The path skirts a huge prehistoric lake, now covered with sand. One can travel in complete solitude, rarely encountering the presence of man. You occasionally see the solitary tent of a nomadic family, always in search of pasture for their camels and herds of goats. Sometimes, you come across a well where hundreds of animals and men are massed. These are images that seem to have come directly from the past, as if a Biblical passage had come to life.
And then there are long stretches punctuated only by solitary rocks, like petriﬁed monsters, and red cliﬀs that alternate with vast stony dunes. Sometimes, there are valleys of precious green grass, where camels, donkeys and sheep appear to wander into thin air, seemingly without a master, but always aware of their home among the tents of their nomadic family. Sometimes, the route runs through the bottom of dry riverbeds, where you can ﬁnd prehistoric arrowheads in the sand.
The oasis of Tichit, once a famous caravan city, is now reduced to little more than a heap of stones that remains inhabited only through man’s obstinacy. It seems impossible that someone can live here. The heat is unbearable. The isolation is complete. The only sustenance is the poor harvest of the wheat ﬁelds and vegetable gardens of the oasis, as well as the obligatory dates. Yet man is here, tenacious even in these extreme conditions. There’s even a police station. The policeman on duty checks our papers. His seraphic smile is in contrast with his uniform, which is rumpled and untidy as if he has just awakened from a long sleep. “Good luck,” he calls out when we resume our journey. Good luck to him as well, in this bleak place.
On the outskirts of the oasis we meet a caravan of salt that is about to leave. The camel drivers are like lost souls who toil around the forest of legs of their animals. Hundreds of animals take turns at the well; they drink deep for they will not ﬁnd water again for many days.
After ﬁve days we are supposed to reach Tidjikja, where we are to stock up on food and water. And yet all we see is the desert. Suddenly, the deadly harmattan wind rises. It is weak on the ﬁrst day, but then picks up. Sand gets in everything, and the visibility plummets. The track disappears. The dust in the air softens the edges, changes the perception of distance, the sky darkens and we feel like we have been swallowed in some kind of wormhole. Which way to go? Can even Abdallah, the driver, ﬁnd the right way? We long for a way out of the anxiety that seems to grip at our throats.
Suddenly we realise as if for the ﬁrst time how important Abdallah is. In the distance, the silhouettes of the camels are just a play of shadows, images of fantasy that make a mockery of the unfortunate traveller. And here is a group of tents, needles in the haystack of the Sahara, ghosts who have taken the road to hell, or so it seems. But they are real, and this brings us relief as we stop to ask for hospitality. “Assalamou aleikoum” we say. “Aleikoum weselam,” they reply in the Hassania language, a language born of the mingling of Arabic with Berber. Some just nod in welcome. There’s a man with a white beard who looks like Moses.
Hours go by. The sun is down and with it the wind. Once again, our driver comes into his own. He does not have a compass, neither modern GPS nor topographical maps – none of this; only his senses. It’s the same in the third millennium as it was in centuries past, even though four-wheel drives have replaced the camels. We arrive in Ain Safra, a group of mud houses tormented by the wind. We eat in a closed closet – bread, tuna and sand, day after day; always the same. Our guide promises to buy a lamb from the next nomad tent and prepare a feast for us, a feast that will last for days, as we carry ﬂy-lashed pieces of meat with us.