"Some of the
world's most precious historic and artistic sites can be visited today—but
might be gone tomorrow:"
The Sahara is expanding southward at a rate of 30 miles per year and
part of the desert's recently acquired territory is a 260-acre patch
of land in north-central Mauritania, home to the village of Chinguetti,
once a vibrant trading and religious center.
Sand piles up in the narrow paths between decrepit buildings, in the
courtyards of abandoned homes and near the mosque that has attracted
Sunni pilgrims since the 13th century.
After a visit in 1996, writer and photographer
predicted that Chinguetti would be buried without a trace within generations.
"Like so many desert towns through history, it is a casualty
of time and the changing face of mankind's cultural evolution,"
Coincidentally, that same year the United Nations Educational, Scientific
and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) designated the town a World Heritage
Site, which spotlighted its rich past and precarious future. Yet,
Chinguetti's fortunes have not improved. A decade later, a UNESCO
report noted that global climate change is delivering a one-two punch:
seasonal flash flooding, which causes erosion, and increased desertification,
which leads to more frequent sandstorms and further erosion. Workers
in Chinguetti have the Sisyphean task of wetting down the sand to
prevent it from being blown about.
Today's Chinguetti is a shadow of the prosperous metropolis it once
was. 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.
A slender, square-based minaret is capped by five clay ostrich egg
finials; four demarcate the cardinal directions and the fifth, in
the center, when seen from the West, defines the axis toward Mecca.
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.
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 (65 miles from Atar, by Land Rover; camels not recommended),
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.
Chinguetti is one of the four ksours, or medieval trading centers,
overseen by Mauritania's National Foundation for the Preservation
of Ancient Towns (the others are Ouadane, Tichitt and Oualata). The
United Nations World Heritage Committee has approved extensive plans
for the rehabilitation and restoration of all four ksours and has
encouraged Mauritania to submit an international assistance request
for the project.
But such preservation efforts won't forestall the inevitable, as the
Sahara continues to creep southward. Desertification has been an ongoing
process in Mauritania for centuries. Neolithic cave paintings found
at the Amogjar Pass, located between Chinguetti and Atar, depict a
lush grassland teeming with giraffes and antelope. Today, that landscape
is barren. May Cassar, professor of sustainable heritage at the University
College London and one of the authors of the 2006 UNESCO report on
climate change, says that solving the problem of desertification requires
a sustained effort using advanced technologies.
Among the most promising technologies under development include methods
for purifying and recycling wastewater for irrigation; breeding or
genetically modifying plants that could survive in arid, nutrient-starved
soil; and using remote sensing satellites to preemptively identify
land areas at risk from desertification. Thus far, low-tech efforts
elsewhere in the world have been a failure. along the Mongolian border,
Chinese environmental authorities sought to reclaim land overrun by
the Gobi Desert by planting trees, dropping seeds from planes and
even covering the ground with massive straw mats. All to no avail.
"We as cultural heritage professionals are faced with a growing
dilemma that we may have to accept loss, that not everything can be
saved." says Cassar. Or, to quote an old saying: "A desert
is a place without expectation."
For original article click here Endangered
Site: Chinguetti, Mauritania