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Nouakchott (1999 population estimate: 881,000) is the capital of Mauritania.

Mauritania was part of the larger French colony of French West Africa, and as such had no capital during the colonial period: Saint-Louis, in Senegal held that position. In 1957, however, this small port town -- when it was selected, an ambitious building program was begun to increase its population to 15,000 -- was chosen to be the capital of the new country. In 1958 Mauritania was formed as an autonomous republic in the French Community, and when that organization became moribund after 1962, Nouakchott became the capital of an independent country.

As a tiny fishing town until 1958, Nouakchott has little history to mention. One event of note is the possibility that the Berber Muslim Almoravids are originally from the area.

Located on the Atlantic coast of the Sahara Desert, Nouakchott is the Sahara's largest city if one excludes marginal cases like Cairo (in the Nile River Delta) or the cities north of the Atlas Mountains on Africa's northern coast. This has come about due to explosive growth driven by north African drought since the beginning of the 1970s: many have moved to the city in quest of a better life.

Due to the rapid build-up, the city is quite spread out, with few tall buildings. It also often acts as an interface between urban Mauritanians and their nomadic fellow citizens. Part of the difficulty in estimating the city's population is that part of it is literally nomadic: setting up tents in suitable locations, then packing up when the need strikes.

Nouakchott is built around a large tree-lined street, Avenue Abd-el-Nasser, which runs northeast through the city center from the airport. Other major streets are named (in French for notable Mauritanian figures, or international personages of the 1960s: Avenue de Gaulle, Avenue Kennedy, and Avenue Lumumba, for example.