Mauritania – or the Islamic Republic of Mauritania – is sandwiched between Morocco, Algeria, Mali, Senegal and the Atlantic Ocean, in Western Africa. It was once an ancient kingdom, also known as Mauritania, which means ‘Moors’. The region was ruled by the Phoenicians and Carthaginians from as early as the 6th century BC, then annexed to Rome in AD 44. Looking to find out more about this fascinating country? Here are a few interesting facts about Mauritania to get you started.
Interesting Facts About Mauritania
1. Most of Mauritiana is covered in desert
The Sahara Desert covers over two-thirds of Mauritania – and this is growing too as the frequency of droughts increases.
It’s also home to the ‘Eye of Sahara’ or the ‘Eye of Africa’, a phenomenal Richat Structure that looks like a giant bulls-eye from space. Caused by an uplifted dome that eroded to expose an onion-like layer of rocks, it measures an incredible 45 kilometres (28 miles) wide. It’s not visible from ground level though, humans only discovered the immensity of the structure with the age of space travel. It’s now a familiar landmark for astronauts gazing down on the planet.
2. It’s home to one of the world’s longest train lines
The “Iron-ore Train” or “Train du Desert” is one of the world’s longest train lines. It measures around three kilometres and connects the port of Nouâdhibou to the iron ores at Zouérat. Opened in 1963, it runs a daily service that whizzes iron and (brave) passengers 704 km across the Sahara Desert. The train comprises three or four locomotives and a passenger carriage. Each car can carry up to 84 tonnes of iron and the whole journey takes around 20 hours.
3. It was the last country in the world to abolish slavery
Mauritania passed slavery abolition laws in 1981 but it didn’t become punishable until the Criminal Act in 2007. Today, it’s estimated that there are more than 90,000 slaves, with around 10 to 20% of the population still living in slavery.
4. It might be mostly desert but there’s fascinating wildlife here too
The UNESCO World Heritage-listed park, Parc National du Banc d’Arguin, is one of the best birdwatching sites in Africa. The park features sand dunes, coastal swamps, small islands and shallow coastal waters, home to staggering biodiversity. It’s an important stopover and breeding ground for a huge variety of thousands of birds migrating between Europe and Southern Africa, as well as sea turtles and dolphins. It stretches 200 km from Cape Timiris and 235 km south of Nouâdhibou.
The country is also home to two endemic species of gerbil and six endemic species of scorpion.
5. It’s home to the world’s largest ship graveyard too
Ever thought about where ships head after their service life? Dismantling large boats is costly, but some of the more unscrupulous owners found an easier, cheaper solution – the Bay of Nouadhibou. At the moment, there are around 300 vessels here in the water and on land. From the 1980s hundreds of ships made their way here, also spurred by the nationalization of the country’s fishing industry. Mauritian authorities allowed uncensored dumping of the ships after receiving bribes. Fishing trawlers, naval cruisers, cargo vessels, and all manner of boats now sit in the shallow waters, decaying or scavenged.
But one positive outcome has seen a boom in the local fishing trade; the boats created new habitats for fish and marine life.
6. It was French for quite a long time
In the 1850s and 1860s, France gained control of the southern parts of the country. In 1904, France established it as a French colonial territory. The country gained full independence in 1960. The national flag has a green background with a central star, crescent and red stripes at the top and the bottom. The star and crescent represent the country’s Muslim roots, while the red signifies the bloodshed during the struggle for independence from France.
7. It’s one of Africa’s newest oil producers
In 2001, the Australian Woodside Petroleum company discovered the Chinguetti oil field, off the Mauritanian coast in 800 m water depth. It has potential reserves of approximately 120 million barrels of oil.
In 2019, the oil and gas explorer Kosmos Energy made one of the largest discoveries of natural gas in the waters offshore Mauritania, where it sees potential to extract 50 trillion cubic feet of gas – around 8.9 billion barrels of oil.