Moroccan Wells

This is the account of the Moroccan invasion of Timbuktu and the wells they built. As told by Shindouk, who was told by his father, who was told by his father.… in the oral tradition of the Berabish, nomads of the greater Sahara who have been taking caravans across this area for millennia. Though he doesn’t know of any books wherein this is corroborated there must be some. Although not in recent accounts by Europeans, there is probably an account among all the manuscripts in the libraries of Timbuktu or Morocco, if they are ever translated. I have used French spellings for the place names, as that will make it them easier to locate on a map.

When the area of Timbuktu was part of the Ghanian Empire in the 8th and 9th centuries, salt was worth two times its weight in gold. All subsequent kingdoms that conquered the area only gained power once they had in their possession the salt mine, which at the time was at Teghaza, 160 km NW of Taoudenni, the current mine.

For centuries before the Moroccan invasion, there had been a sort of triangle of trans-Saharan trade between Zouerat, Morocco; Teghaza, Mali; Oulalata, Mauritania and Gao in Mali (of course these countries did not exist at the time). At that time there were many more animals, more wealth, thus men were more motivated. Caravans were huge, composed of thousands of camels, so they were able to transport lots of supplies including plenty of water. Therefore wells in the open desert were few and far between with one only every 250 km. There were also scattered oases where large numbers of wells were found together often a whole line of wells only a few meters apart. (For example Araouane, 250 km north of Timbuktu had over 170 wells. Today there remain only two!)

In 1587 the king of Morocco set out to conquer Teghaza. At the time the salt mine belonged to the Songai Empire. It was under the protectorate of Askia Mohamed. The mine was exploited not only by slaves but also paid workers, contractors, people in necessity trying to make ends meet, as well as warriors, the military of the kingdom. There were also women slaves who served the needs of the men. When the Moroccans came all of these people retreated heading south towards Timbuktu and the river. One hundred sixty kilometres south where they made camp, one of the women went to pee and discovered a piece of salt. She showed her find to a learned man and that is how they discovered Taoudenni, another salt mine more important than the first.

So the Songai abandoned Teghaza to the Moroccans and began exploiting Taoudenni. Four years later in 1590 the King of Morocco sent the Pasha Jodeen to conquer the Songai Empire. The Pasha set out with 15,000 men to take Taoudenni in 1590 and reached the river in 1591. There was fought the decisive battle of Tondibi, east of Timbuktu along the river on the route to Gao, where the Songai lost their territory.

For each stage of the march across the dessert the Pasha sent a large number of men in advance of the main body of the army. At two days march these men stopped to dig a well, lining it with rock and wood they had brought with them. When the rest of the army arrived they found a water. While they rested and let the animals graze another group of men were sent ahead again to make another well. These wells were 90 to 120 meters deep and hundreds were built one every two days march all the way to the river.

Today most of these wells are lost, like those of Araouane, filled in by sand and buried by dunes. They were abandoned to their fate like the canals between the river and Timbuktu and between the river and lake Faguibine, also dug by the Moroccans. However, five are still in use on the route to Taoudenni, at Ina lahi (180 km from Timbuktu); Bou Djebeha (250 km from Timbuktu); Foum el ‘Alba (500 km from Timbuktu); Bir Ounane (620 km from Timbuktu) and at Taoudenni (720 km north of Timbuktu). Loss of animals, the decline of the caravan trade and the abandonment of certain caravan routes have all contributed to the decrease in usable wells. With not many people needing them there is less motivation or means to keep them open and usable. But route the Moroccans took is well known and the people of the desert have not forgotten where the wells are. Shindouk has come across three or four of the old Moroccan wells in his travels and if he had the means he could have dug out the sand to find water still at the bottom.