Koumbi Saleh

Also known as: Kumbi Saleh, Kūmbī Ṣāliḥ; outdated: Madīnat Ghāna, Qunbi

Metropolis in West Africa´s history

Few towns in Mauritania have been as important in their history as Koumbi Saleh, located south of Timbédra. Only 35 km from the Malian border, the town belongs culturally to the historically diverse ancient Sudan, which was the center of various African empires. As the presumed capital of the Ghana Empire, the city was embedded in the extensive network of trans-Saharan trade. With an estimated 20,000 people at one time, the town was the largest in West Africa at the time. Above all, the later invasion of the Almoravids put an end to the prosperity in the 13th century. It was not until the French excavations from 1914 that the city came back into the public eye. In today's Koumbi Saleh, apart from the ruins, there are only village-like structures to be seen. The way is nevertheless worthwhile. Not only because one of the most important cities in West Africa was located here, but also because of the tamourts and forested areas only a few kilometers away. The area in the far south is far more overgrown than, say, the Adrar region. On our two tours in Mauritania's south, we offer an optional excursion to Koumbi Saleh. On the way Néma to Ayoun el Atrous we pass Timbédra anyway and could easily arrange a one-day side trip towards Koumbi Saleh with a possible overnight stay.


Highlights

  • Ruins of Koumbi Saleh
  • Archaeological site
  • Restored mosque
  • Tamourt (Lake Landscape)

Sand full of magnificence

How many cities in Mauritania can claim to have once been the capital of a great empire? Aoudaghost, perhaps, and certainly Azougui in the meantime. Not even Oualata was granted this honor, but Koumbi Saleh was. In the fertile land of the Sudan region, which in large parts coincides with today's Sahel zone, some of Africa's advanced civilizations developed between the rivers Senegal, Niger, Shari and the White Nile. The empires of Ghana, Mali and Songhai left a deep mark on the region. Today, Koumbi Saleh, the former capital of the Ghana Empire, is part of the Hodh Ech Chargui region in Mauritania's southeast and lies on the southern edge of the Aoukar Depression.

The richest king on earth

The place was first mentioned in the 9th century. Unlike the UNESCO cities of Chinguetti and Ouadane, the foundation was not influenced by Berbers and Arabs. As the capital of the Ghana Empire (formerly Wagadu), the town probably had its heyday in the 10th to 11th centuries.  However, it is undisputed that Koumbi owed its wealth primarily to its dominance in the trans-Saharan gold trade and that there were numerous contacts with Arab-Berber traders. Mosques also existed. At times, Koumbi Saleh housed up to 20,000 people, making it the largest city in West Africa. According to Arab sources, the town was divided into two parts: scholars and merchants lived in one part of town, and the Ghanaian king and his entourage lived in the other. The Arab geographer Ibn Hauqal once even wrote about the latter that he was the richest king in the world. With the invasion of the Almoravids, the decline of the Ghanaian Empire began. Later, Sundiata Keïta was to conquer and destroy the city. Sundiate Keïta founded a new, even larger empire in West Africa - the Mali Empire. The shift in trans-Saharan trade also played its part in Koumbi's decline. Similar to its northwestern neighbor Aoudaghost, the town played no role in the Mali Empire from the 13th century onward and gradually fell into oblivion. It was not until French colonialism came in the early 20th century that archaeologists uncovered the silted ruins and rediscovered Koumbi Saleh. Today, Koumbi Saleh is the largest excavation site in all of Mauritania and, along with Aoudaghost and Azougui, is on the UNESCO Tentative List since 2001.

Downfall & Reconstruction

For today's visitors, these ruins are the main reason for the visit. The mosque, for example, which has been uncovered and now partly restored, is considered the largest of its time in all of West Africa. The column monument is also worth seeing. There is no major town nearby, but in the rainy season the landscape greenens and a tamourt forms in the immediate vicinity of the ruins. If desired, we can easily incorporate a visit to Koumbi Saleh into one of our southern tours. We recommend a one-day stay with a possible overnight stay outside.

Your trip to Koumbi


 Tours including Koumbi Saleh

Tagant Aoukar Tour
Between Mali Empire and Almoravids - On the traces of the history of the South
14 Day(s)
16 Destinations
2700 km
3 Languages
Adrar Tagant Aoukar Tour
More than 3000 km of desert, oases, mountains and petroglyphs
14 Day(s)
21 Destinations
3050 km
3 Languages

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) about Koumbi Saleh

How did Koumbi Saleh look like in his prime?
According to the Arab geographer Al-Bakri, who traveled the city in the 11th century, Koumbi Saleh was divided into two parts: "The part inhabited by Muslims is very large and contains twelve mosques where Friday prayers are celebrated. All these mosques have their imams, their muezzins and their hired readers. The city has jurists and scholars. There are several fresh water wells nearby for the water supply of the inhabitants. Vegetables are also grown near them. [...] The city inhabited by the king is six miles from it. The land that separates them is covered with dwellings. The buildings are made of stones and acacia wood. The king's house consists of a palace and several huts with rounded roofs, and the perimeter is surrounded by a wall-like fence."
Are there any overnight accommodations in Koumbi Saleh?
We don't know of any in Koumbi itself, but there are several in nearby Timbédra. In addition, there is the possibility to spend the night outdoors.
Is Koumbi Saleh included in tours by default?
Koumbi Saleh is an additional option for our two southern tours. We are also happy to work out your individual tour with you, should you wish to visit other spots.