In Chinguetti, an ancient African city that was once a stopover for old trade routes in the Sahara Desert, shifting sands are threatening to bury history.
Founded in the 777 CE, Chinguetti was once a bustling trade center and home to over 20,000 residents. It was one of four ksours (medieval trade centers) controlled by the Mauritania’s National Foundation for the Preservation of Ancient Towns. Today fewer than one thousand people live there and they depend on tourism for most of their income.
Chinguetti was a stopover for Sunni pilgrims on their way to Mecca and for desert trading caravans. People met to worship, trade and share news. Now it is home to abandoned buildings, the former French Foreign Legion fortress, five ancient libraries, and a spare and simply built Friday Mosque which is considered to be a national symbol of the country of Mauritania.
As some of the tribes decided to settle in Chinguetti, they and the Moroccan Almoravids mixed together with the strict Malikite style of Islamic religion becoming prominent. The average student studied mathematics, medicine, law, and astronomy.
As time went on, the desert swallowed up the oasis, leaving Chinguetti part of the expanding Sahara desert. The city, being less hospitable, began to shrink in population until about the 13th century, when it was re-established as a trading center for passing caravans.
The libraries are still home to over 1,300 Quranic manuscripts that rest on shelves inside buildings created from mud and rock. No preservation efforts are being made and the books are in the same places as when the libraries were built. Some are kept in wooden boxes, but the majority of the pages are lying in open air compartments. Though archeologists fear for the safety of the ancient texts due to improper storage techniques and the dry and arid conditions, they are owned privately and the owners refuse to break tradition by moving them to a safer location.
The libraries can still be seen with permission, as many current Islamic scholars study them to learn the fundamentals of Islamic law. The Mosque is also open for Muslims to worship, although non-Muslims are forbidden to enter due to religious law. It consists of split stone walls with a square minaret tower adorned with simple ostrich egg finials, a four aisle prayer room with a symbolic door pointing to Mecca and an outdoor courtyard.
One can also see the Moorish Empire architecture that has stood without change since the Middle Ages in Chinguetti. The Mauritian government, along with the Peace Corps and various cultural organizations, are attempting to attract visitors to the area citing the rich cultural heritage of the city.
In 2000, the cities of Chinguetti, Ouadane, Tichitt, and Oualata were declared World Heritage sites by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization’s World Heritage Committee. However, little has been done to preserve the cities due to the unstable political atmosphere of the country and rapid climatic change bringing the sands of the desert to rest between the ancient buildings and courtyard homes surrounding the Mosque. The original densely packed stone architecture and the narrow, winding paths to the Mosque fill up with sand faster than preservationists can clear it out.
Some restoration work began in the 1980s, but due to the lack of technical competence and the expanding desert, the National Foundation for the Ancient Towns has had conservation issues preventing the work from being completed in a timely way.