The Rich History of Mauritania

Mauritania 1


Mauritania has a long and complex history that spans over 3,500 years. The region’s early history is characterized by the Berbers, who were the first known inhabitants of Mauritania. The Berbers, also known as the Amazighs, were a group of tribes who inhabited North Africa long before the Islamic invasion.

First Kingdoms

It is believed that the first kingdoms in Mauritania were established by the Phoenicians in the 5th century BCE, who were followed by the Carthaginians and the Romans. The Roman Empire established a province in the region known as “Mauretania Caesariensis,” which included parts of modern-day Algeria, Morocco, and Mauritania.

Islamic Conquests and Kingdom of Ghana

In the 7th century CE, Arab armies began to penetrate the region, bringing Islam with them. By the 11th century, the Almoravid Empire established control over parts of the region, including what is now Mauritania. During this period, the Kingdom of Ghana emerged as a major center of trade and culture.

Kingdom of Tekrur and The Empire of Ghana

The 13th century saw the emergence of the Kingdom of Tekrur, which controlled parts of modern-day Senegal, The Gambia, and Mauritania. This period also saw the rise of the Mali Empire, which was founded by Sundiata Keita. The Mali Empire replaced the Kingdom of Ghana as the dominant power in the region.

The Trans-Saharan Trade and Arrival of Arabs

The Trans-Saharan trade routes, established in the 14th century, brought Arabs to Mauritania. These Arabs settled in the region and brought with them the Arab language and culture, which still influences the country today.

European Colonization and Independence

The 19th century saw European colonization of much of West Africa, including Mauritania. The French established control over the region in the late 19th century and ruled the colony until Mauritania gained independence in 1960.

The First President and Military Rule

Mauritania’s first president was Moktar Ould Daddah, who ruled the country until 1978 when he was overthrown in a military coup. The country was ruled by military leaders until 1992, when Mauritania held its first democratic elections.

The Civil War

Mauritania experienced a civil war from 1989 to 1991, which was characterized by ethnic clashes between black Mauritanians and Arab-Berbers. The conflict resulted in the displacement of tens of thousands of people and the deaths of an estimated 3,000 people.

Recent History

Since the end of military rule in 2007, Mauritania has held democratic elections and made progress towards political stability. However, the country continues to face challenges, such as corruption, economic inequality, and the presence of terrorist groups in the region.


Mauritania, officially known as the Islamic Republic of Mauritania, is a country in West Africa located on the Atlantic coast. The origins of Mauritania can be traced back to the 3rd century, when a group of Berbers known as the Bafour settled in the region. Over time, the Bafour were joined by other Berber tribes, including the Sanhaja, who migrated to Mauritania from the Western Sahara in the 8th century.

As Islam was spreading across North Africa, Arab armies conquered Mauritania in the 7th century. The region was then ruled by a series of Arab empires and factions, including the Almoravids and the Almohads. However, Arab control over Mauritania was never complete, and the Berber tribes continued to hold significant power and influence.

In the 16th and 17th centuries, Mauritania was colonized by the Portuguese and the Dutch, who established trading posts along the coast. The French also began to establish a presence in the region in the late 19th century, and they eventually gained control over Mauritania in the early 20th century.

Today, Mauritania is a largely Islamic and Arab-speaking country, with a significant minority of ethnic Berbers. Despite its colonial past and ongoing challenges with poverty, Mauritania has a rich cultural heritage and a unique history that continues to shape the country and its people.

Precolonial History

Mauritania has a long and complex precolonial history that includes a variety of ethnic groups and empires. The Berber tribes of the Sanhaja and Bafour were the dominant groups in the region in the early centuries AD, and they traded with other North African civilizations such as the Romans.

The arrival of Islam in the 7th century had a profound impact on Mauritania, as Arab armies conquered the region and established a series of empires and factions. The Almoravid Empire, based in Morocco, ruled over Mauritania from the 11th to the 12th centuries, while the Almohad Empire, which also originated in Morocco, controlled the region in the 12th and 13th centuries.

Despite Arab dominance, the Berber tribes of Mauritania were never completely subjugated, and they continued to hold significant power and influence throughout the region. Some of the most famous Berber empires in the region include the Almoravid Empire, the Almohad Empire, and the Kingdom of Tlemcen.

In addition to the Berber peoples, other ethnic groups such as the Wolof, Fulani, and Soninke also played important roles in Mauritanian history. These groups often engaged in trade, warfare, and diplomatic alliances with one another, shaping the political and social landscape of the region.

Colonialism and Independence

Mauritania was first colonized by European powers in the 16th and 17th centuries, when the Portuguese and Dutch established trading posts along the coast of the country. However, it was the French who eventually gained control over Mauritania in the early 20th century.

The French began to expand their presence in the region in the late 19th century, establishing trade connections and military outposts. They gained control over the region in 1904, and Mauritania became a French colony known as French West Africa.

Under French rule, Mauritania experienced significant social and economic changes. European-style schools and hospitals were established, and modern infrastructure was built, including railroads and ports. However, the French also imposed their own cultural and political values on Mauritania, leading to tensions and resistance from the local population.

Mauritania gained its independence from France on November 28, 1960. The country was initially ruled by a single political party, the African Regroupment Party (PAI), which was dominated by Arab elites. Over time, power shifted between different political factions and groups, and Mauritania experienced periods of political instability and conflict.

Today, Mauritania remains one of the poorest countries in the world, with significant economic and social challenges. However, the country has also made important strides in improving access to education, healthcare, and other essential services, and it remains an important player in the West African region.

Key figures

Throughout Mauritania’s history, there have been many key figures who have played significant roles in shaping the country’s political, social, and cultural development. Some of the most notable figures in Mauritania’s history include:

Ely Ould Mohamed Vall

Ely Ould Mohamed Vall is a former military ruler of Mauritania who served as the chairman of the Military Council for Justice and Democracy from 2005 to 2007. He came to power after leading a military coup that ousted the democratically-elected president, Maaouya Ould Sid’Ahmed Taya. During his time in power, Ely Ould Mohamed Vall implemented several reforms, including the introduction of a new constitution, the establishment of a democratic government, and the promotion of human rights.

Maaouya Ould Sid’Ahmed Taya

Maaouya Ould Sid’Ahmed Taya is a former president of Mauritania who served from 1984 to 2005. He initially came to power through a military coup and later established a one-party state. During his time in power, he implemented economic reforms and modernized the country’s infrastructure. However, his regime was marked by human rights abuses, including the mistreatment of political prisoners and journalists.

Ould Sheikh Abdallahi

Ould Sheikh Abdallahi is a former president of Mauritania who served from 2007 to 2008. He was the country’s first democratically-elected president and came to power following the ouster of Ely Ould Mohamed Vall. His presidency was marked by several challenges, including clashes with the military, political unrest, and economic difficulties. He was eventually overthrown in a military coup led by General Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz.

Moktar Ould Daddah

Moktar Ould Daddah was a former president of Mauritania who served from 1961 to 1978. He is considered to be one of the most important figures in the country’s history, having led the country to independence from France in 1960. During his time in power, he implemented several social and economic reforms, including the abolition of slavery and the promotion of education. However, his regime was also characterized by political repression and the suppression of dissent.

Sidi Mohamed Ould Boubacar

Sidi Mohamed Ould Boubacar is a former prime minister of Mauritania who served from 2005 to 2007. He came to power after the military coup led by Ely Ould Mohamed Vall and was tasked with heading the transitional government. During his tenure as prime minister, he worked to stabilize the country and prepare for democratic elections.

Abderrahmane Sissako

Abderrahmane Sissako is a Mauritanian filmmaker who has gained international recognition for his work. He is best known for his films “Waiting for Happiness” and “Timbuktu,” which explore the intersection of traditional African culture and modernity. His work has been highly praised for its poetic style and its ability to capture the beauty and complexity of African life.

Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz

Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz is a former president of Mauritania who served from 2009 to 2019. He came to power following the military coup that ousted Sidi Mohamed Ould Cheikh Abdallahi and was later elected president in democratic elections. During his time in power, he implemented several economic and social reforms, including the expansion of infrastructure and the promotion of investment. However, his regime has been criticized for its authoritarian tendencies and its suppression of dissent.

Social, cultural, or political context

Mauritania is a country located in northwest Africa, bordered by the Atlantic Ocean to the west, Western Sahara to the north and northwest, Algeria to the northeast, Mali to the east and southeast, and Senegal to the southwest. The country has a rich and complex history, which has influenced its social, cultural, and political context.

Pre-Colonial History

Mauritania was inhabited by various ethnic groups, including the Berbers, Fulani, and Moors. The Berbers were the original inhabitants of the region and were later joined by the Fulani and Moors. These groups had their own distinct cultures and customs, which were shaped by the environment in which they lived.

The Moors were primarily nomadic and relied on camel herding, trade, and raiding for their livelihood. They also had a strong Islamic culture, which spread throughout the region. The Fulani were cattle herders and traders who also had a strong Islamic culture.

Colonialism and Independence

Mauritania was colonized by France in the late 19th century and remained under French rule until it gained its independence in 1960. During the colonial period, the French introduced their culture and language, which had a significant impact on the social and cultural fabric of the country.

After independence, Mauritania experienced a series of political upheavals, including several military coups and periods of authoritarian rule. The first president, Moktar Ould Daddah, tried to create a national identity by promoting Arab-Berber culture and language. This led to tension between the Arab-Berber and black African communities in the country.

In the 1980s, Mauritania experienced a period of political liberalization, which included multiparty elections and the creation of a new constitution. However, this period was short-lived, and the country once again descended into political turmoil, with military coups and civil unrest.

Contemporary Issues

Today, Mauritania is facing a range of social, cultural, and political challenges. One of the most pressing issues is the persistence of slavery, which was officially abolished in 1981 but still exists in practice. The country also faces issues of inequality, discrimination, and poverty, particularly among its black African population.

Mauritania is also grappling with the effects of climate change, which have led to desertification and food insecurity. The country has experienced recurrent droughts, which have devastated the agricultural sector and forced many rural communities to migrate to urban areas.

In terms of politics, Mauritania is a semi-presidential republic, with the president serving as both the head of state and the head of government. The country has a mixed record on human rights, with restrictions on freedom of assembly, speech, and the press.

Despite these challenges, Mauritania has made some progress in recent years. In 2018, the country passed a law criminalizing slavery and established a special court to prosecute cases of slavery. The country has also made efforts to improve access to education and healthcare, particularly in rural areas.


The social, cultural, and political context of Mauritania is complex and multifaceted. The country has a rich history, shaped by its diverse ethnic groups and the legacy of colonialism. Today, Mauritania is facing a range of challenges, including slavery, inequality, and climate change. However, the country has also made progress in recent years, and there is hope that it can continue to move forward and address these issues.

Impact and significance

Mauritania has a rich and complex history, with a diverse range of influences shaping its trajectory throughout the centuries. From the ancient empires of Ghana and Mali to the arrival of Arab and Islamic influence in the 8th century, from the centuries of European colonialism to the post-independence modernization period, Mauritania’s history has been defined by a series of pivotal events and influential figures.

Throughout this history, there have been numerous moments and individuals that have had a significant impact on the country, both in terms of its political and social development, as well as its cultural and economic evolution. Some of the key areas where this impact and significance can be seen include:

Slavery and abolition

One of the most significant and impactful issues in Mauritania’s history has been the institution of slavery, which was not officially abolished until 1981 (and even then, remained a de facto reality for many years thereafter). Mauritania was one of the last countries in the world to abolish slavery, and its legacy continues to be felt today in the form of deep-seated social inequalities and discrimination.

The impact of slavery on Mauritania’s history can be seen in a variety of ways, such as the widespread resistance and rebellion of enslaved people throughout the centuries, the influence of slave-raiding on the country’s political and economic development, and the ongoing efforts of activists and organizations to bring attention to the continued existence of slavery in the country.

Colonialism and independence

Another major factor in Mauritania’s history has been the period of European colonialism, which began in earnest in the late 19th century with the arrival of the French. This period had a profound impact on Mauritania’s political and social structures, as well as its economy and culture.

During this time, Mauritania saw the establishment of a colonial government that imposed French language, culture, and values on the population, as well as the exploitation of the country’s natural resources for the benefit of France. However, this period also saw the emergence of resistance movements and anti-colonial sentiment, which culminated in the country’s independence in 1960.

The impact of colonialism and independence can still be seen in Mauritania today, in the country’s complex relationship with France (which remains a significant economic and political partner), as well as in ongoing efforts to establish a truly democratic and inclusive government.

Cultural and religious influences

Throughout its history, Mauritania has been shaped by a diverse array of cultural and religious influences. From the ancient West African empires of Ghana and Mali to the arrival of Islam in the 8th century, from the influence of Berber and Arab traders to the introduction of European culture and values during the colonial period, Mauritania has experienced a fusion of different cultural and religious traditions over the centuries.

These influences can be seen in a variety of aspects of Mauritanian culture, such as its music, art, literature, and architecture, as well as in the country’s religious practices and beliefs. This diversity of cultural and religious influences has given rise to a unique and distinctive national identity, but has also led to tensions and conflicts between different groups over the years.

Economic development and modernization

Finally, Mauritania’s history has been marked by ongoing efforts to develop and modernize the country’s economy and society. In the aftermath of independence, the country underwent a period of socialist-inspired planning and development, which aimed to transform the economy and reduce dependence on natural resources like iron ore and fish.

More recently, the country has embarked on a series of economic reforms and development initiatives, such as the National Development Plan (2016-2030) and the establishment of the Nouakchott port facilities. While there have been some successes in this regard, Mauritania remains one of the poorest countries in the world, with challenges like climate change, limited natural resources, and political instability posing ongoing obstacles to sustained economic growth.

Overall, the impact and significance of Mauritania’s history can be seen in a variety of ways, from its enduring legacy of slavery to its unique culture and diverse religious traditions, from the ongoing challenges of economic development to the complexities of its post-independence political landscape. Despite these challenges, however, Mauritania continues to be a country with a rich and vibrant history, and a distinctive role to play in the wider region and world.

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