Chinguetti (Berber languages: Cengiṭ; Arabic: شنقيط, romanized: Šinqīṭ) is a ksar, a medieval trading center in northern Mauritania, located on the Adrar Plateau east of Atar.
Ksar or qsar is the North African term for "fortified village", from Arabic qaṣar (قَصَر), itself possibly loaned from Latin castrum.
Founded in the 13th century as the center of several trans-Saharan trade routes the city is seriously threatened by the encroaching desert; The western boundary is marked by tall sand dunes and several houses have been swallowed by the desert.
The town is divided in two parts by a wadi. On one side, lies the old town, and on the other the new town.
The main building that dominates over the old town is The Friday Mosque of Chinguetti, an ancient structure of dry-stone construction, featuring a square minaret capped with five ostrich egg finials is the core site of Chinguetti.
The mosque was built in the thirteenth or fourteenth century, and it is believed to be the second oldest continuously used minaret in all of the Muslim world.
Other notable buildings in the town include the former French Foreign Legion fortress; and a tall watertower. But among these, the most important noteworthy buildings are the famous libraries, giving the town the name “The City of Libraries”. In fact in the old quarter there are five important manuscript libraries of scientific and Quranic texts, with many dating from the later Middle Ages.
Atar to Chinguetti: 1.20 hour by 4x4 car
Occupied for thousands of years, the Chinguetti region was once a great savannah. This is evidenced by the presence of Neolithic cave paintings portraying images of giraffes, cows and people in a lush grassland in Agrour near the Amogjar Pass. Today, that landscape is barren.
The city was founded in 777 CE, and by the 11th century had become a trading center for a confederation of Berber tribes known as the Iẓnagen, or Sanhaja, Confederation. It was at the crossroads of trade routes. Soon after settling Chinguetti, the Sanhaja first interacted with and eventually melded with the Almoravids, represented by Abdallah ibn Yasin.
The Almoravids would eventually control an empire stretching from present-day Senegal to southern Spain (they called the latter al-Andalus). The city's stark unadorned architecture reflects the strict religious beliefs of the Almoravids, who spread the Malikite rite of Sunni Islam throughout the Western Maghreb.
After two centuries of decline, the city was effectively re-founded in the 13th century as a fortified cross-Saharan caravan trading center connecting the Mediterranean with Sub-Saharan Africa. Although the walls of the original fortification disappeared centuries ago, many of the buildings in the old section of the city date from this period.
Between the 13th and 17th centuries, Sunni pilgrims en route to Mecca gathered here annually to trade, gossip, and say their prayers in the spare, mostly unadorned mosque, built from unmortared stone.
Desert caravans were the source of Chinguetti's economic prosperity, with as many as 30,000 camels gathering there at the same time. The animals, which took refreshment at the oasis retreat, carried wool, barley, dates and millet to the south and returned with ivory, ostrich feathers, gold and slaves.
Chinguetti is one of the four ksours overseen by Mauritania's National Foundation for the Preservation of Ancient Towns (the others are Ouadane, Tichitt and Oualata).
These preservation efforts won't prevent the inevitable as the Sahara continues to creep southward. Desertification has been an ongoing process in Mauritania for centuries.
With the steady traffic of holy people through the city, a large number of small libraries were built to contain the growing number of religious texts left behind. Keeping to the original tradition of trading and passing down such holy writings, most of the original Chinguetti libraries are largely conserved in the same state as when they were founded.
In its heyday Chinguetti had 24 libraries, which housed thousands of Arabic manuscripts, the work of theologians, writers, jurists, philosophers, poets, mathematicians and scientists ranging from the golden age of the almoravids in Andalusia, the eleventh century to the beginning of the twentieth century.
Today there are only five of those libraries left containing about 1,300 Quranic manuscripts, but only four accessible: The Al Habot, the Al Ahmed Mahmoud, the Al Hamoni, and the Ould Ahmad Sherif which are all well organized, catalogued and open for both scholarly and tourist visits. The decaying texts are gingerly handled by scholars who still occasionally visit the site to debate Islamic Law.
Unfortunately, Chinguetti is suffering from the aggressive expansion of the Sahara Desert surrounding it and these historically significant texts are in great danger of being destroyed by the dry air and encroaching sands.
Preservationists have tried to relocate the collections or set up restoration programs locally, but the private owners of the libraries refuse to let the texts leave the succession of being handed down and traded amongst themselves.
Chinguetti holds the country’s greatest claim to fame. In fact, for many centuries, all of Mauritania was known in the Arab East as bilad shinqit, “the land of Chinguetti,” although the term did not appear in any of the great medieval Arab geographies. Mauritania’s most famous modern writer, Ahmad ibn al-Amin al-Shinqiti (1863–1913), in his geographical and literary compendium Al-Wasit, wrote adoringly of his hometown’s special charm.
The oldest text kept in the city is by Ebi Hilal el-Askeri, an autograph text of theology dated 480 of the Egira. He described two large groups among the texts, those of the Mauro genus and of the Egyptian genre.
The origin is from Egypt, Syria, perhaps Turkey and the Maghreb, identifiable by a common type of writing of present-day Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia.
Among the important pieces are two Korans, the first saying of Buaïn çafra (the one who has the yellow eye) is an oriental manuscript illuminated by Mohammed Ben Abou'l Qayym el-Qawwal and Tebrizi. Chinguetti's cadì made the witnesses swear on this text.
There is also a production of local scholars, about 240 volumes, of Ouadane, Oualata, Tichitt, Atar, Trarza and del Tagant with works sometimes in multiple volumes. There are also about fifty works of Maa el Ainin printed in Fez.
The indigenous Saharan architecture of older sectors of the city features houses constructed of reddish dry-stone and mud-brick techniques, with flat roofs timbered from palms. Many of the older houses feature hand-hewn doors cut from massive ancient acacia trees, which have long disappeared from the surrounding area. Many homes include courtyards or patios that crowd along narrow streets leading to the central mosque.
In 1996, UNESCO designated Chinguetti, along with the cities of Ouadane, Tichitt and Oualata (also in the dunes area) as a World Heritage Site.
Once home to 20,000 people, Chinguetti now has only a few thousand residents, who rely mostly on tourism for their livelihood.
Isolated and hard to reach, 104 km (65 miles) from Atar only by 4x4, it is nonetheless the most visited tourist site in the country; its mosque is widely considered a symbol of Mauritania. Non-Muslim visitors are prohibited from entering the mosque, but they can view the priceless Koranic and scientific texts in the old quarter's libraries and experience traditional nomadic hospitality in simple surroundings.
Photo credits: Giulio Aprin