Western Sahara, Catalan Atlas

Maps of Western Sahara

Western Sahara is located in North Africa, bordering the Atlantic Ocean. It is nearly entirely covered by the Sahara Desert, the largest desert in the world. Subsequently, the landscape is mostly low, flat desert representing one of the Earth's most inhospitable areas. Wadis or dry river beds that sometimes have intermittent flowing rivers dot the landscape in many parts. Water being the scarcest resource here, Western Sahara is one of the world's most sparsely populated areas.

Study and exploration

Classical accounts describe the Sahara much as it is today—a vast and formidable barrier. The Egyptians controlled only their neighbouring oases and, occasionally, lands to the south the Carthaginians apparently continued the commercial relationships with the interior that had been established during the Bronze Age. Herodotus described a desert crossing by an expedition of Berbers during the 5th century bce , and Roman interest in the Sahara is documented in a series of expeditions between 19 bce and 86 ce . The descriptions of the Sahara in the works of Strabo, Pliny the Elder, and Ptolemy reflect growing interest in the desert. Geographic exploration, sponsored by the ʿAbbāsids, Fāṭimids, Mamlūks, and other courts in the Middle East, North Africa, and Moorish Spain, was widespread during the medieval period. Descriptions of the Sahara are contained in the works of numerous Arab writers, including al-Yaʿqūbī, ash-Sharīf al-Idrīsī, and Ibn Baṭṭūṭah.

Medieval travelers with religious and commercial motives contributed further to an understanding of the Sahara and its peoples. Abraham Cresque’s Catalan Atlas, published for Charles V of France in about 1375, renewed European interest in the desert. The atlas contained information based upon the knowledge of Jewish traders active in the Sahara. Its publication was followed by a period of intense Portuguese, Venetian, Genoese, and Florentine activity there. Particularly well documented are the travels of such 15th-century explorers as Alvise Ca’ da Mosto, Diogo Gomes, and Pedro de Sintra. Growing interest in the Sahara within northern Europe was reflected in the travels and writings of the 17th-century Dutch geographer Olfert Dapper.

Subsequent European exploration of the Sahara, much of it incidental to interest in the major waterways of interior Africa, began in earnest in the 19th century. Attempts to determine the course of the Niger River took the British explorers Joseph Ritchie and George Francis Lyon to the Fezzan area in 1819, and in 1822 the British explorers Dixon Denham, Hugh Clapperton, and Walter Oudney succeeded in crossing the desert and discovering Lake Chad. The Scottish explorer Alexander Gordon Laing crossed the Sahara and reached the fabled city of Timbuktu in 1826, but he was killed there before he could return. The French explorer René Caillié, disguised as an Arab, returned from his visit to Timbuktu by crossing the Sahara from south to north in 1828. Other notable expeditions were undertaken by the German geographer Heinrich Barth (1849–55), the French explorer Henri Duveyrier in 1859–62, and the German explorers Gustav Nachtigal (1869–75) and Gerhard Rohlfs (1862–78).

After the military occupation of the Sahara by the various European colonial powers, more detailed exploration took place and by the end of the 19th century the main features of the desert were known. Political, commercial, and scientific activities that began in the 20th century greatly increased knowledge of the Sahara, although vast tracts of the desert remain remote.

Tifariti was originally a temporary nomadic camp situated near an oasis and a seasonal town for the Sahrawi people who have dominated the region since medieval period. The Spanish later settled in the area and used it as a military camp. The town was largely abandoned by its population in 1976 because of the war with Morocco. Tifariti has been a place of many battles, especially during the Western Sahara War. It was used as a military camp by both sides at different points of the war. The town was bombed severally by Royal Moroccan Air Force in August 1991, just days before the proclamation of the ceasefire, destroying most of the buildings. Now, the town is under reconstruction.

Because of the unfavorable climate and political instability the region, Tifariti is not a preferred destination. The town has a few administrative buildings and a hospital. Most of the buildings constructed between 1989 and 1991 through foreign aid in preparation for a referendum and return of Sahrawi refugees were destroyed by the Royal Moroccan Air Force in 1991. Since the proclamation of the ceasefire, the government has continuously worked at establishing and improving the infrastructure.

Western Sahara, Catalan Atlas - History

Exploration 3: Timbuktu

Salt comes from the north, gold from the south, and silver from the country of the white men, but the word of God and the treasures of wisdom are only to be found in Timbuktu.

An old West African proverb

Essential Questions

  1. What caused the decline of Timbuktu?
  2. When was Timbuktu discovered by Europeans?
  3. How did Islam shape the development of Mali and of Timbuktu?

In the popular imagination, Timbuktu is the most remote and isolated part of the world. But 500 years ago, Timbuktu was the legendary city of gold. It was a transit point and a financial and trading center for trade across the Sahara. It dominated the gold trade. It was a place of mystery and faraway riches.

Timbuktu was founded in 1080 and within 300 years had become one of the era's most important trading points. Timbuktu was an influential Islamic intellectual centre, a cosmopolitan multicultural city of commerce and learning and the second-largest imperial court in the world.

When much of Europe was struggling out of the Dark Ages, the emperor of Timbuktu was having stunning mosques built, and thousands of scholars from as far as Islamic India and Moorish Spain were studying in the city.

Detail from a 14th century Catalan map showing Mansa Musa, king of Timbuktu, holding a gold nugget which he is offering to a Muslim merchant who is approaching on camel.

Catalan Atlas, Bibliotheque Nationale, Paris

Then it was a city of 100,000 and so rich that even the slaves were decorated with gold. In 1324, a king of Mali, Mansa Musa, traveled with a caravan of a hundred camels bearing 300 pounds of gold each (equal to perhaps $135 million today).

The legend of his wealth was recorded in maps, particularly the Catalan Atlas of 1375, which showed an African ruler enthroned like a European monarch with a crown on his head and an orb and scepter in his hand.

As recently as 1963, a famous British historian Hugh Trevor-Roper said: "Perhaps in the future, there will be some African history to teach. But at present there is none. There is only the history of Europeans in Africa. The rest is darkness."

Detail from a map, Guinea Proper, Not Including the Whole of Africa, but Only that Part Known to the Geographers as Lower Ethiopia). Nuremberg: Homannianorum Heredum, 1743.

Credit: Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress

Trever-Roper was wrong. Timbuktu was once a center of religion, culture, and learning, as well as a commercial crossroads on the trans-Saharan caravan route. Situated at the strategic point where the Sahara touches on the River Niger, it was the gateway for African goods bound for the merchants of the Mediterranean, the courts of Europe and the larger Islamic world. It was involved in a thriving commerce in gold, salt, and slaves. When the Renaissance was barely stirring in Europe, wandering scholars were drawn to Timbuktu's manuscripts all the way from North Africa, Arabia and even Persia.

In 1591, Moroccan soldiers invaded and looted Timbuktu, ending the city’s grandeur and taking thousands of inhabitants as slaves. By the time Timbuktu was discovered by Europeans, the palaces of its kings and other fine buildings had crumbled to dust.

(Links will open in a new window close that window to return to this page)

The following links are organized thematically.

The History

  • Timbuktu, The Golden Age
  • On the Edge of Timbuktu
  • Threats to the Survival of Timbuktu
  • Timbuktu
  • Timbuktu:
  • Timbuktu: City of Legends
  • Timbuctoo the Mysterious

Mansa Musa, the Malian King

  • Mansa Musa and his pilgrimage to Mecca
  • Mansa Musu and Songhai Empire
  • Mali
  • Djenne, Mali
  • Empires of the Western Sudan
  • Ghana Empire

Guinea Proper, Not Including the Whole of Africa, but Only that Part Known to the Geographers as Lower Ethiopia). Nuremberg: Homannianorum Heredum, 1743.

Credit: Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress

This map from the eighteenth century shows clearly the change in trade and travel that had occurred by 1743.

Rather than being viewed as part of the larger continent, West Africa is presented with a focus on the sea routes that had replaced the land caravan routes to the area.

A selection of excavated finds from Essouk-Tadmekka, including fragments of glazed ceramics (among which is an oil lamp), stone beads and semi-precious stones, Mali.

“You start realizing they excavated a fragment of porcelain from China, glassware from Syria and Egypt, and terracotta from all over this expansive interregional network. So that’s when I started putting together this bigger narrative.”

Kathleen Bickford Berzock

In 1324, the West African king Mansā Mūsā embarked on a pilgrimage from his empire of Mali to Mecca. His year-long Hajj journey is legendary for its sheer decadence and unapologetic display of wealth: accompanying his parade of 8,000 courtiers and 12,000 slaves were 100 camels, each laden with as much as 300 pounds of pure gold. When he passed through Cairo, Mūsā apparently gave local royal officials so much gold he depreciated its value in Egypt.

Mūsā’s renown is evident in the exquisite Catalan Atlas, a six-panel, fourteenth-century map detailing medieval trade and seafaring routes. A prominent portrait shows him wearing a golden crown and holding a golden orb the accompanying caption reads, in part, “This king is the richest and most distinguished ruler of this whole region on account of the great quantity of gold that is found in his lands.”

Virgin and Child, ca. 1275–1300, France, Ivory with paint.

This small image is a trace of a vital pre-colonial narrative that’s largely been forgotten overtime—that medieval West Africa had a global reputation as a region of considerable wealth and played a significant role in shaping economies and cultural production overseas for centuries. This notion, according to Kathleen Bickford Berzock, Associate Director of Curatorial Affairs at the Block Museum of Art, is “a revelation to people. That the medieval period is European history, or that Africa was isolated and disconnected from global economies and trends before European contact—those are really resilient but misguided ideas.”

Berzock has spent the last seven years organizing a monumental show highlighting West Africa’s medieval cultural past, specifically between the eighth and 16th centuries. The exhibition Caravans of Gold, Fragments in Time: Art, Culture and Exchange Across Medieval Saharan Africa represented the first major museum exhibition of its kind, bringing together material remnants of this influential trade and medieval artworks from three continents. Many objects illustrated the high technical skills of African artisans, such as a cast bronze elephant from Nigeria and rare pieces of gold jewelry excavated from across the Sahara. The exhibition later traveled to Toronto’s Aga Khan Museum and the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art in Washington, D.C.

It’s an unfortunate and pervasive stereotype that the Sahara is an empty expanse, too harsh for life to thrive. Far from desolate, the world’s largest subtropical desert was rife with movement during the medieval era, with different ethnic groups communicating through the common tongue of Arabic. Camel caravans traveled great miles while carrying goods like glass, copper, brass, and pottery, enduring sandstorms and water shortages along the way. Merchants passed through busy trading centers like Gao and Tadmekka in Mali and Sijilmasa in Morocco they also filled up boats that were sent along the Niger River.

These trans-Saharan routes were largely driven by the value of pure gold from deposits in the historic region of Western Sudan—encompassing the empires of Ghana, Mali, and Songhai. With demand for the precious material coming from distant lands, these complex crisscrosses fueled a global economy. They reached as far as the Mediterranean Sea and Levantine routes, ultimately connecting with the ancient Silk Road. On return routes to Africa, goods like cowrie shells moved south from the Indian Ocean and glass beads came from the Mediterranean. One rare artifact on display that exemplifies the scope of this network was a small, celadon-glazed porcelain fragment. Found in Tadmekka, it was originally part of a Song Dynasty bowl produced in the southeastern Chinese province of Jiangxi.

Administration of Western Sahara

Morocco controls 75% of Western Sahara, but the Polisario Front recognize Brahim Ghali as the president. In 1976, the Front created the Saharan Arab Democratic Republic (SADR) and established a government while in exile in Algeria. Ghali was elected the president of SADR in 2016 after the death of Mohamed Abdelaziz Ezzedine. He is a seasoned military leader who was among the founding members of the Polisario front and led the resistance against the Spanish occupation of Western Sahara.

Updated 2021

The N1 Atlantic Highway down the coast of ‘Western Sahara’ to Mauritania is straightforward and safe and essentially a continuation of Morocco. More here.

Many current maps, not least Google Maps, identify a territory called ‘Western Sahara’. The dashed border along its northern edge gives a hint that there is no actual country called ‘Western Sahara‘.
The map on the left was drawn for my Morocco Overland 3 guidebook and shows how this area breaks up in the real world.

In late 2020 just before the election, the US took the unusual step of being the first country to recognise Moroccan sovereignty over its Western Saharan territory. This could shake – or stir – things up in the region. Interesting article. In 2021 the new administration in the US may reverse this decision.

What does this all mean to the desert traveller?
You can easily travel down the all-sealed N1 Atlantic Route in Moroccan-controlled Western Sahara to Mauritania with no problems bar a few checkpoints and where a fiche (click to download template) is handy. Fuel is discounted south of Tan Tan and fuel stations are frequent enough in the desert between the main towns of Laayoune and Dakhla.

`Origins of ‘Western Sahara’

The former colony of Spanish Sahara, (left) was relinquished by Spain in favour of Morocco and Mauritania in 1975. This was against the wishes of the indigenous Saharawi (‘Saharans’) population and their Polisario Front which had been agitating for independence since the 1960s. A few months later the Saharawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR) was declared by the Polisario.

Michael Mercer’s 1975 book, Spanish Sahara describes the region’s geography and history, and Skeletons on the Zahara is another good read set in the area. John Lodwick’s pompous and convoluted The Forbidden Coast (1956), is less so.

By 1979 Morocco had annexed the resource-rich west of the territory to which it had long made claims. As a result of that, a war broke out with Algeria (allied with Mauritania for a while) who both claimed to support the Saharawi and the SADR.

In 1991 the UN brokered a ceasefire and a plans for a referendum to decide the future of the territory. MINURSO bases are still dotted around the territory (a 2014 MINURSO map). But by this time Morocco had populated its part of the territory with northern Moroccans so as to win any referendum which anyway, has been repeatedly postponed since then. Laayoune today has a population of some 200,000, most of them northerners benefitting from ‘frontier territory’ subsidies.

It’s ‘Maur i tania. Maur e tania is an ancient word for the Maghreb or North Africa.

In the meantime Morocco began building a series of defensive berms, spreading in successive waves further south (above fanack good info here), until by 1987 the current 1500-km long militarised wall or Berm divided the territory longitudinally, like a modern Great Wall of China. The Atlantic side – two-thirds of the territory – are known as Morocco’s Southern Provinces. East of the Berm as far as the Mauritanian border is the Polisario Free Zone (PFZ), barely undeveloped, barely occupied and supported by Algeria which also hosts many Saharawi refugee camps over the border around nearby Tindouf.

From Google maps you can see the Berm cuts a corner off northwest Mauritania for about 50km (left), so dividing the PFZ into two regions. Not all maps displayed on this page accurately show this delineation, and who knows if this is a former ‘forward line’ of the Berm which is currently unmanned. It is almost certainly mined. Whatever, it forces the Saharawi of the PFZ to cut across Mauritanian territory in the vicinity of Bir Mogrein when they want to get from Tindouf and the northern PFZ where the SADR administrative body sits, to the less populated southern sector. One can speculate that the Mauritanians tolerate these transits as long as the non-Mauritanian Saharawi (ethnically Moors, anyway) stay north of a certain area, perhaps well north of Zouerat. Further south one hears the latitudinal ‘railway border’ between the PFZ and Mauritania is respected by the army and police of both sides, although it’s said Saharawi nomads seasonally pass over the border and back.

Inland travel is much less common. A couple of roads and pistes lead to mines, small Saharawi settlements and Moroccan military bases embedded along the landmined and patrolled Berm. Zoom in with Google sat and you can see these installations clearly. We travelled in this area in 2019 (below well away from the Berm) and there’s even a French guidebook listing routes (above right). But the rather dull landscape and risk of landmines when away from well-used pistes puts people off. See this, summarised in the box, left.

The Dakar Rally (below) used to run from Smara or Guelta Zemmour in Morocco, briefly across the PFZ and into northern Mauritania, but since at least 2002 tourists cannot cross the Berm – formerly with least difficulty along the main piste linking Guelta Zemmour with Bir Mogrein.

A couple of travellers have traversed the PFZ’s southeast corner which is used by locals as a shortcut between Nouadhibou and Zouerat to avoid the Azzefal dunes (left). But as a foreigner, once noticed or arriving at Zug you may be escorted via a couple of UN-bases northeast to Arounit close to the Mauritanian border and south of Zouerat.
In the PFZ you may find Spanish more commonly spoken than French, and it’s said you can get by with no visa or invitation letter, use Mauritanian ouguiya and buy cheap Algerian fuel.
A 2017 report from the area.

Unimaginable wealth

The exhibit is meant to debunk stereotypes about Africa, Bickford Berzock said. While academic historians have extensively documented the importance of Africa in the Medieval world, the continent is often seen as a backwater in the public imagination. The later incursions by colonialist powers, which would strip Africa of people and resources, blotted out much of the rich culture and history that came before.

"It tells us a lot about the world we live in today to understand the long history of exchange and interaction on a global scale," Bickford Berzock told Live Science. "It also helps people think about the history of Africa before western involvement in things like the Atlantic slave trade."

Mansa Musa puts a face to the phenomenon. The ruler of the Mali empire, he had full control of the region's gold production — and Mali's gold was the purest, most sought-after gold of the day, Bickford Berzock said.

"It's hard to imagine anybody having that kind of wealth today," she said, "Basically, unlimited access to wealth."

From Here To Timbuktu: Myth And Reality At The World's Edge

A vintage map of the Sahara desert with "Timbuctoo" located on the southern edge.

Nicholas Belton /

Timbuktu conjures up images of long camel caravans out on the edge of the sand-strewn Sahara — a remoteness so legendary that the ancient city is still a byword for the end of the earth.

The city might seem the stuff of fable, but the ongoing conflict in Mali has thrust it into the spotlight. French and Malian government forces captured Timbuktu this week from Islamic rebels who reportedly burned a library holding priceless manuscripts before fleeing.

So how did Timbuktu come to symbolize the blank spaces of our imagination?

For centuries, it was a trading crossroads between Europe and the Middle East, and later an outpost connecting the West African coast with the continent's largely unexplored (by Europeans, at least) interior.

Even the spelling of the place has added to the mystique. It appeared as "Tenbuch" in the Catalan Atlas (1375) and has since been variously rendered as "Thambet," "Timbuctoo" and "Timbuktoo." In official documents produced by the government of France, Mali's former colonial master, it is often spelled "Tombouctou."

It also pops up frequently in popular culture, on everything from messenger bags to restaurants to a largely panned 1970s TV adaptation of works by author Kurt Vonnegut Jr. It was even a stop on the Underground Railroad in New Jersey.

Timbuktu's location on the cusp of the harsh Sahara is one reason for the enduring fascination, says Robert Launay, an anthropology professor at Northwestern University. The region is called the Sahel, which is Arabic for shore, because the Sahara itself was thought of as a sea.

A rendering in the Catalan Atlas (1375) shows Mansa Musa, a 14th century king of Mali, holding a gold nugget and wearing a European-style crown. Wikimedia Commons hide caption

A rendering in the Catalan Atlas (1375) shows Mansa Musa, a 14th century king of Mali, holding a gold nugget and wearing a European-style crown.

"Timbuktu is at the northward extension of the Sahel region and also the northernmost part of where the Niger River flows," he says. "It was the port of entry through the desert to North Africa. There was trade up the Niger River to Timbuktu and then a caravan trade across the desert."

But the city was more than just a transshipment point — it was a major center of learning, which Launay says makes news of the destruction of the library at Timbuktu by retreating rebels even more devastating.

"Monuments can be rebuilt, but the library, on the other hand, preserves a wealth of Islamic manuscripts that is really the greatest and most irreplaceable treasure," he says.

Ancient Timbuktu also had two things that the rest of the world wanted: salt and gold.

While rock salt was a valuable commodity for African traders, it was the gold that interested Europeans. And a 14th century Malian king named Mansa Musa gave Arabs and Europeans their first glimpse of just how much gold Timbuktu might have.

Musa passed through Cairo in 1324 en route to Mecca, and his entourage spread around so much gold that its price in Egypt reportedly crashed for the next decade. Timbuktu became known as a sort of El Dorado of the Old World, says Shobana Shankar, a visiting professor of history at Georgetown University.

That impression was fueled by Leo Africanus, a Spanish Moor who traveled widely in northwest Africa with his diplomat uncle and wrote a book based on his travels called Description of Africa.

He arrived in Timbuktu circa 1510 at the city's apex. According to Shankar, Africanus described it as "a splendidly laid out city, a city where Muslims would feel comfortable not only trading but where . immigrants might want to settle."

Timbuktu was once considered so remote that the Paris-based Societe de Geographie offered 10,000 francs to the first non-Muslim to reach the city and report back. Chris Kocek/iStockphoto hide caption

Timbuktu was once considered so remote that the Paris-based Societe de Geographie offered 10,000 francs to the first non-Muslim to reach the city and report back.

Launay says Timbuktu became a city of the imagination: "It was in a part of Africa that was remote and inaccessible to the extent that there really was a competition for who would get there first and live to tell the tale."

The French explorer Rene Caillie won the prize, literally, in 1828. The Paris-based Societe de Geographie offered 10,000 francs to the first non-Muslim to reach Timbuktu and report back. Caillie managed to sneak into the city disguised as a Muslim trader. His rival for the prize, Scotsman Alexander Gordon Laing, reportedly reached Timbuktu two years earlier but was mysteriously murdered at some point during his return.

But the city the Frenchman saw incognito was nothing like the one Africanus described, Shankar says.

Caillie "was rather disappointed," she says. He found poor people living in the streets and otherwise "could not find evidence of the kind of splendor which Leo Africanus had written about."

That report simply added to the mystery, Shankar notes. "People wondered what happened to Timbuktu, and that's a question that many 20th century and 21st century historians have given attention to."

What most likely happened was competition. "Timbuktu stands out in European fascination, but there were lots of dynamic Islamic African cities in this time period," she says.

By the time gold and silver were discovered in the New World, Timbuktu's days as a center of trade were numbered, Launay says.

"So, West African gold ceased to be strategic," he says. "Slavery diverted Africa trade toward the Atlantic Ocean as opposed to across the desert."

Today, even the salt trade is disappearing. "These days," Launay says, "most West Africans don't depend on rock salt from the Sahara. They get cheap industrial salt the way we get cheap industrial salt."

Watch the video: نايضة عند لكياطن ولعجاج. ضوء أخضر للمغرب بتنزيل مشروع الداتي عمر هلال وبوريطة (January 2022).