Oualata or Walata (also Biru in 17th century chronicles) is a small oasis town in south east Mauritania
Mauritania is a country in the Maghreb and West Africa. It is bordered by the Atlantic Ocean in the west, by Western Sahara in the north, by Algeria in the northeast, by Mali in the east and southeast, and by Senegal in the southwest...

 that was important in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries as the southern terminus of a trans-Saharan trade
Trans-Saharan trade
Trans-Saharan trade requires travel across the Sahara to reach sub-Saharan Africa. While existing from prehistoric times, the peak of trade extended from the 8th century until the late 16th century.- Increasing desertification and economic incentive :...

 route. It is a World Heritage Site
World Heritage Site
A UNESCO World Heritage Site is a place that is listed by the UNESCO as of special cultural or physical significance...



Oualata is believed to have been first settled by an agro-pastoral people akin to the Mandé
Mandé or Manden is a large group of related ethnic groups in West Africa who speak any of the many Mande languages spread throughout the region. Various Mandé groups are found in Benin, Burkina Faso, Côte d'Ivoire, Chad, The Gambia, Ghana, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Liberia, Mali, Mauritania, Niger,...

 Soninke who lived along the rocky promontories of the Tichitt-Oualata and Tagant cliffs of Mauritania. There, they built what are among the oldest stone settlements on the Africa
Africa is the world's second largest and second most populous continent, after Asia. At about 30.2 million km² including adjacent islands, it covers 6% of the Earth's total surface area and 20.4% of the total land area...

n continent.

The town originally formed part of the Ghana Empire
Ghana Empire
The Ghana Empire or Wagadou Empire was located in what is now southeastern Mauritania, and Western Mali. Complex societies had existed in the region since about 1500 BCE, and around Ghana's core region since about 300 CE...

 and grew wealthy through trade. At the beginning of the thirteenth century Oualata replaced Aoudaghost
Aoudaghost was an important oasis town at the southern end of a trans-Saharan caravan route that is mentioned in a number of early Arabic manuscripts...

 as the principal southern terminus for the trans-Saharan trade and developed into an important commercial and religious centre. By the fourteenth century the city had become part of the Mali Empire
Mali Empire
The Mali Empire or Mandingo Empire or Manden Kurufa was a West African empire of the Mandinka from c. 1230 to c. 1600. The empire was founded by Sundiata Keita and became renowned for the wealth of its rulers, especially Mansa Musa I...


An important trans-Saharan route began at Sijilmasa
Sijilmasa was a medieval trade entrepôt at the northern edge of the Sahara Desert in Morocco. The ruins of the town lie along the River Ziz in the Tafilalt oasis near the town of Rissani...

 and passed through Taghaza
Taghaza is an abandoned salt-mining centre located in a salt pan in the desert region of northern Mali. It was an important source of rock salt for West Africa up to the end of the 17th century when it was abandoned and replaced by Taoudenni. Salt from the mines formed an important part of the...

 with its salt mines and ended at Oualata. The Moslem traveller Ibn Battuta
Ibn Battuta
Abu Abdullah Muhammad Ibn Battuta , or simply Ibn Battuta, also known as Shams ad–Din , was a Muslim Moroccan Berber explorer, known for his extensive travels published in the Rihla...

 used this route in 1352 on his way to the city of Mali, the capital of the Mali Empire
Mali Empire
The Mali Empire or Mandingo Empire or Manden Kurufa was a West African empire of the Mandinka from c. 1230 to c. 1600. The empire was founded by Sundiata Keita and became renowned for the wealth of its rulers, especially Mansa Musa I...

. On leaving Sijilmasa his caravan took 25 days to reach Taghaza where they stayed for 10 days. The caravan stopped again for 3 days at the oasis of Tasarahla (probably Bir al-Ksaib) to prepare for the last and most difficult 10 day leg of the journey. From Tasarahla a scout was sent ahead to Oualata to arrange for a party to bring water a distance of four days travel to meet the thirsty caravan. Altogether, the caravan took two months to cross the desert.

Ibn Battuta found the inhabitants of Oualata were Moslem and were mainly Massufa. He was surprised by the great respect and independence that women enjoyed. He only gives a brief description of the town itself: "My stay at Iwalatan (Oualata) lasted about fifty days; and I was shown honour and entertained by its inhabitants. It is an excessively hot place, and boasts a few small date-palms, in the shade of which they sow watermelons. Its water comes from underground waterbeds at that point, and there is plenty of mutton to be had."

From the second half of the fourteenth century Timbuktu
Timbuktu , formerly also spelled Timbuctoo, is a town in the West African nation of Mali situated north of the River Niger on the southern edge of the Sahara Desert. The town is the capital of the Timbuktu Region, one of the eight administrative regions of Mali...

 gradually replaced Oualata as the southern terminus of the trans-Sahara route and Oualata declined in importance. The Arab diplomat, traveller and author Leo Africanus
Leo Africanus
Joannes Leo Africanus, was a Moorish diplomat and author who is best known for his book Descrittione dell’Africa describing the geography of North Africa.-Biography:Most of what is known about his life is gathered from autobiographical...

 who visited the region in 1509-1510 gives a description in his book Descrittione dell’Africa
Description of Africa
Description of Africa, a largely firsthand geographical book, which was published under the title Descrittione dell’ Africa by Giovanni Battista Ramusio in his collection of travellers' accounts Delle navigationi e viaggi in Venice in 1550, contained the first detailed descriptions published in...

: "Walata Kingdom: This is a small kingdom, and of mediocre condition compared to the other kingdoms of the blacks. In fact, the only inhabited places are three large villages and some huts spread about among the palm groves."

The old town covers an area of about 600 m by 300 m, some of it now in ruins. The sandstone buildings are coated with banco
Banco may refer to:* Banco , an album by Banco del Mutuo Soccorso;* Banco by Henri Charrière;* Banco , A decorative typeface;* Banco ; fermented mud; made by fermenting mud with rice husks...

 and some are decorated with geometric designs. The mosque now lies on the eastern edge of the town but in earlier times may have been surrounded by other buildings. The French historian, Raymond Mauny, estimated that in the middle ages the town would have accommodated between 2000 and 3000 inhabitants. Today, Oualata is home to a manuscript
A manuscript or handwrite is written information that has been manually created by someone or some people, such as a hand-written letter, as opposed to being printed or reproduced some other way...

A museum is an institution that cares for a collection of artifacts and other objects of scientific, artistic, cultural, or historical importance and makes them available for public viewing through exhibits that may be permanent or temporary. Most large museums are located in major cities...

, and is known for its highly decorative vernacular architecture
Vernacular architecture
Vernacular architecture is a term used to categorize methods of construction which use locally available resources and traditions to address local needs and circumstances. Vernacular architecture tends to evolve over time to reflect the environmental, cultural and historical context in which it...

. It was made UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1996 together with Ouadane
Ouadane or Wadan is a small town in the desert region of central Mauritania, situated on the southern edge of the Adrar Plateau, 93 km northeast of Chinguetti. The town was a staging post in the trans-Saharan trade and for caravans transporting slabs of salt from the mines at Idjil. A...

, Chinguetti
Chinguetti is a ksar or medieval trading centre in northern Mauritania, lying on the Adrar Plateau east of Atar.Founded in the 13th century, as the center of several trans-Saharan trade routes, this tiny city continues to attract a handful of visitors who admire its spare architecture, exotic...

 and Tichitt.
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