Mauritania is a mysterious, little-known Saharan country, where temperatures in the dry desert heat can reach 57°C (135°F). Much of the land is dry and inhospitable and many locations are difficult to reach without long journeys in 4-wheel drive vehicles.
Ouadâne, an oasis settlement in the north concealed by waves of coloured sand dunes, contains 3,000 manuscripts and an ancient mosque, justifying its UNESCO World Heritage Site status. Northern Mauritania also contains the seventh holiest city of Islam, Chinguetti.
In the Middle Ages, Mauritania hosted the Almoravid movement that spread Islam throughout north Africa. The country has a colourful, indigenous nomad Moorish population.
The coast is an 800km (500 mile) sandy beach, devoid of most vegetation but supporting an astonishingly large and varied population of birds. The Parc National du Banc d'Arguin is a stopover for birds migrating between Europe and Africa.
Though it remains one of the world's poorest countries, exploitation of Mauritania's offshore reserves of oil and natural gas could bring prosperity in the future.