Mystery Of The Desert: The Lost Cities Of The Nigerien Sahara

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The Nigerien Sahara is home to some of the most astonishing and rewarding sights in the Sahel. Fortified villages of salt and clay perched on rocks with the Saharan sands laying siege below. The “ksars” of Djado are one such sight, with crenelated walls, watchtowers, secretive passages, and wells, all testifying to a skilled but unknown hand.

The Origins Of Djado

The origins of Djado are shrouded in mystery, with no archaeological dig or scientific dating ever undertaken to explain the mysteries. Djado lies in the Kawar oasis region 1,300 kilometers (800 miles) from the capital Niamey, near Niger’s deeply troubled border with Libya. Once a crossroads for caravans trading across the Sahara, Kawar today is a nexus for drug and arms trafficking.

Challenges To Tourism

The grim reputation of the region deters all but the most determined traveler. There have been no foreign tourists since 2002, and when tourism was good, there was economic potential for the community. A blessing of sorts occurred in 2014 when gold was discovered, bringing life and some economic respite, but also bandits who hole up in the mountains. Few of the newcomers seem interested in visiting the ksars.

The History Of Kawar

The Sao, present in the region since antiquity, were the first known inhabitants in Kawar, and perhaps established the first fortifications. But the timeline of their settlement is hazy. Some of the ksars still standing have palm roofs, suggesting they were built later. Between the 13th and the 15th centuries, the Kanuri people established themselves in the area. Their oasis civilization was almost destroyed in the 18th and 19th centuries by successive waves of nomadic raiders—the Tuaregs, Arabs, and finally the Toubou. The arrival of the first Europeans in the early 20th century spelled the beginning of the end of the ksars as a defense against invaders.

The Kanuri And Toubou Today

Today, the Kanuri and Toubou have widely intermingled, but the region’s traditional leaders, called the “mai,” descend from the Kanuri lineage. They act as authorities of tradition, as well as being custodians of oral history. But even for these custodians, much remains a mystery. “Even our grandfathers didn’t know. We didn’t keep records,” said Kiari Kelaoui Abari Chegou, a Kanuri leader.

The Threat To Relics

Three hundred kilometers to the south of Djado lies the Fachi oasis, famous for its fortress and old town, with the walls still almost intact. While the ruins are a point of pride, descendants are worried the fragile salt buildings are not properly safeguarded. Since 2006, Djado has languished on a tentative list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites. “It’s really crucial it’s registered as a UNESCO World Heritage Site,” said Tchagam. “We are reminded of ourselves in this fort, it’s a part of our culture, (it’s) our entire history.”

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