A long trek through the desert of northeastern Niger takes the visitor to fortified villages of salt and clay perched on rocks with the besieging sands of the Sahara below, one of the most astounding and rewarding sights in the Sahel.
Generations of travelers have stood before the “ksars” of Djado, marveling at their crenellated walls, watchtowers, secret passageways and shafts, all testimonials to a deft but unknown hand.
Who chose to build this outpost in a ravaged and desolate region, and why they built it, are questions that have never been fully answered. And so seductive is why it was abandoned.
No archaeological dig or scientific dating has ever been done to explain the mysteries. Djado is in the Kawar oasis region, 1,300 kilometers (800 miles) from the capital Niamey, near Niger’s border with Libya, which is deeply troubled.
Once a crossroads for the caravan trade across the Sahara, Kawar is today a nexus for drug and arms trafficking. His grim reputation deters all but the most determined traveler.
“There have been no foreign tourists since 2002,” said Sidi Aba Laouel, mayor of Chirfa, the commune where the Djado sites are located. “When tourism was good, there was economic potential for the community.”
Something of a blessing happened in 2014 when gold was discovered. He witnessed an influx of miners from across West Africa bringing life and economic respite, but also bandits hiding in the mountains.
Few of the newcomers seem interested in visiting the ksars. The mayor is careful when discussing local history, acknowledging the many gaps in knowledge.
He refers to old photocopies in his closet of a work by Albert le Rouvreur, a colonial-era French military man stationed in Chirfa, who tried unsuccessfully to shed light on the origins of the site.
The Sao, present in the region since ancient times, were the first known inhabitants of Kawar, and perhaps established the first fortifications.
But the timeline of their deal is hazy. Some of the ksars that are still standing have thatched roofs, suggesting that they were built later.
Between the 13th and 15th centuries, the Kanuri people settled in the area. Their oasis civilization was nearly destroyed in the 18th and 19th centuries by successive waves of nomadic raiders: the Tuaregs, the Arabs, and finally the Toubou.
The arrival of the first Europeans at the beginning of the 20th century meant the beginning of the end for the ksars as a defense against invaders. The French army took the area in 1923.
Today, the Kanuri and Toubou have intermingled extensively, but the region’s traditional leaders, called 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.
“Not even our grandparents knew. We don’t keep records,” said Kiari Kelaoui Abari Chegou, a Kanuri leader.