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Mauritania: Chinguetti

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Chinguetti | Mauritania | Africa

[Visited: October 2013]

The sun set when we were still on our way to Chinguetti, and when we arrived in the desert town, it was pitch dark. For weeks, I had been looking forward to seeing Chinguetti, and it was about to happen. I had no clue what the city looked like, and I was excited, when I fell asleep on the roof of a hotel in the new part of town. When I crept out of the hotel, it was still very dark in the early morning. I walked across the riverbed to the old town, and walked slightly east, where I found a good place to sit on the sand. Above and around me, the dark was quietly and slowly pushed back, the black replaced by a dark blue. The stars were extinguished one by one, and slowly, I saw a landscape of rolling sand dunes appear in the near distance. When the rays of the sun finally appeared over the desert, I walked back to the old town, and started exploring the city of Chinguetti that is considered by locals to be the 7th holiest city for Muslims.

Picture of Chinguetti (Mauritania): Early morning light on the sand and one of the old buildings of the old city of Chinguetti

The soft light of the sun turned the stone walls of the ancient houses a shade of orange. A city was founded here in the 13th century; an earlier settlement had been here since the 8th century. It developed into an important trading point, but also a gathering point for caravans traveling east, on the long hajj to Mecca. I would visit the old town later on with my guide, but for now, I was happy to walk the streets of Chinguetti alone. Sand is creeping in from all sides, desertification is a serious problem, where many centuries ago, this was a green savannah where animals roamed. Efforts are done to contain the desert, but the sand is persistent, and houses are being eaten by the encroaching Sahara sands. i found the Great Friday Mosque, with its remarkable stone minaret, the second oldest minaret still in use in the entire Muslim world. I started seeing people in the streets, and some of them were trying to lure me into small shops. Tourism to Chinguetti has dwindled in recent years, and I could understand their tenacity to try to sell me their souvenirs.

Picture of Chinguetti (Mauritania): The old stone minaret of the mosque of the old holy city of Chinguetti

But after breakfast, it was first time to get to know the old city better. My guide took me to one of the five old libraries of Chinguetti, where an enthusiastic caretaker dressed in boubou showed some of the ancient documents in his library. One of them was an Islamic document written by an Uzbek, transported through the Middle East to end up in his small collection. He recited several poems by heart, giving the ancient documents a lively touch. He showed me a small collection of other items in one of the rooms of the 13th century stone house, explained that the wooden locking mechanism on a door was based on Yemeni design (after I told him I had seen similar locks in the country), before I climbed to the roof for great views of the old city and the Friday mosque. We walked past the mosque again; unfortunately it is not allowed to enter for non-Muslims. When I returned to Chinguetti from a 4-day trek through the desert, there was more time to roam the streets of the city. The new city has some old buildings as well, is a little more lively, and has a small market. We crossed to the old city again, and toured the sandy streets once more. We inevitably ended up at the Friday mosque again. Even though there was no one around, my guide was clear: I could not go inside. Instead, we walked back to the new city, while strong winds were adding more sand to the dunes in the streets of Chinguetti.

Picture of Chinguetti (Mauritania): Sahara sand dunes in the background of the ancient holy city of Chinguetti
Picture of Chinguetti (Mauritania): Sandy street with stone houses in Chinguetti
Picture of Chinguetti (Mauritania): Ancient library with wooden door and decorated wall in Chinguetti
Picture of Chinguetti (Mauritania): Wooden plank used to rehearse the Quranic verses
Picture of Chinguetti (Mauritania): Caretaker of one of the ancient libraries showing one of the old documents in his collection
Picture of Chinguetti (Mauritania): View over the old holy city of Chinguetti from the top of one of the old libraries
Picture of Chinguetti (Mauritania): Early morning view of sand building against a wall with door in Chinguetti
Picture of Chinguetti (Mauritania): Crossing the riverbed between old and new Chinguetti: veiled women braving a sand storm
Picture of Chinguetti (Mauritania): Sand can be found everywhere in Chinguetti
Picture of Chinguetti (Mauritania): The focal point of the holy city of Chinguetti: the ancient Friday mosque
Picture of Chinguetti (Mauritania): The ancient Friday mosque of Chinguetti
Picture of Chinguetti (Mauritania): Decorated wooden lock of door in Chinguetti
Picture of Chinguetti (Mauritania): The cemetery and old city of Chinguetti

Around the World in 80 Clicks

Personal travel impressions both in words and images from Chinguetti (Mauritania). Clicking on the pictures enlarges them and enables you to send the picture as a free e-card or download it for personal use, for instance, on your weblog. Or click on the map above to visit more places close to Chinguetti.
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