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A HOLY CITY IN THE SANDS

Desert Expedition to
Chinguetti, Mauritania

January to March 1996
© Kit Constable Maxwell

Other articles
The Smithsonian Magazine -
Endangered Chinguetti

By Jeanne Maglaty , Smithsonian Magazine, quoting
Kit Constable Maxwell
A colourful traveller's tale...
Desert Photographer's
Freedom Dash
by Kit Constable Maxwell

 


Chinguetti, Mauritania, a holy Islamic City


PLACE OF THE WINDS
Nouakchott is a long way from anywhere. I had arrived here after an arduous 4,000 mile drive from Europe. This was to be my starting point for a trip to the Moorish city of Chinguetti, an isolated, dune-encircled town of great cultural interest and the Seventh Holy City of Islam.
----- Nouakchott, the Place of the Winds, was built in recent years following Mauritania's independence from France. It is a well planned but shabby town surrounded by the shanty dwellings of displaced desert nomads. The country's 10-year drought has cost the lives of an estimated 40,000 camels and the livelihood of countless nomadic herdsmen and their families.
----- Travelling Northward in my modified Land Rover the terrain is flat and sandy, and served by a badly deteriorated tarmac road. By Akjoujt, 100 miles on, I abandoned the road and drove alongside, dodging rocks, sand ruts and wadis as quickly as I could see them. The ondulée ripples on the surface of the piste shake the car severely for mile after bone- shaking mile. The piste gets worse, the ripples steeper and the pot holes deeper.
----- I am carrying a full load of fuel and water - over 70 gallons, and am fearful of the effect on the Land Rover's suspension. I make a daily inspection of springs, shock absorbers, engine and body mountings, U bolts and shackles to allay my fears. I am carrying a number of spare parts and can rectify most suspension problems, at least on a get-me-home basis.

ATAR HIGHLANDS
The terrain changes - a gently undulating plain hosts a sparse covering of thin green grass and scrub. The piste begins to climb as I near the Atar highlands which water this part. Goats, some sheep, and camels stalk elegantly through the rich grazing. Fluffy camel calves gambol gauchely on their long ungainly legs, taking uncertain steps after their mothers.


Author shares tea with Moorish herder - Atar plateau


I stopped for the night at a well near some herders' huts. A thorn corral held some young camels and goats whilst elsewhere semi-wild donkeys roam wild and bray their vociferous challenge. The corral is made of woven thorn and is an impenetrable barrier to both the domestic animals within and to the wild animals without. I washed off in half a bowl of lukewarm water, starting at the top, soaping and rinsing my way downwards. By the time I got to my feet, the water was thick, soapy and fairly unpalatable. I put it aside for the first rinse of the evening meal and got into the Land Rover, now in the cool of the evening, to prepare a meal. But the goats found the bowl… and drained every last drop before I'd had a chance to stop them!

MOORISH TOWN
Next morning the track climbed up into a rocky landscape and I arrived at Atar, a charming Moorish town renowned for it's leatherwork. I bought some comfortable sandals and went to the market to buy fresh vegetables for the journey into the desert. I moved among eager vendors, curious children and shrouded village elders discussing matters of mutual interest in the traditional marketplace gathering. The lettuces were fresh but limp, nature's way of reducing evaporation in the heat. The carrots were crisp, the potatoes small and firm. I bought five of each to last for the next five days. And some bread which I placed in sealed bags to keep it fresh for as long as possible. I filled up with fuel at the one pump and set off across the desert for Chinguetti.
----- It was very hot, over 40'C, (110'F) and I was drinking a lot of lukewarm water as I drove along. The piste straggled off across the rocks and wadis in no particular direction, unmarked save for the occasional rut and intermittent wheel marks through patches of soft sand. Big gila lizards stopped to observe the advancing Land Rover before lumbering off on their chubby legs to the safety of their burrows. Gila's are aggressive, very poisonous and best avoided. Buzzards circled overhead hunting for small rodents or some luckless vole feeding off the barren landscape.

HAZARDOUS GORGE
The broadly spread tracks of the piste converged suddenly and I found myself at the foot of a great cliff. This escarpment extended in both directions and only a narrow ravine indicated the direction to take. I checked out the position on my GPS navigator which confirmed I was on target for the precipitous climb to the Atar plateau. I selected low ratio on the gearbox and set off up the track. The long climb had begun.
----- The track became steeper with sharp bends, dangerous overhangs and steep drops into the ravine. Down now to 1st gear in low ratio, the Land Rover scrambled awkwardly over loose rocks and ruts deeply scarred by flash floods. The view was breathtaking and every turn revealed another rocky vista. Tall conical pinnacles arose across the valley, their shale strewn haunches plunging down into the depths of the ravine.
----- I came to a section which was the steepest and most tortuous yet. I planned my route and thundered on, unable to stop for fear of losing momentum. Now the gradient was so steep I could only see the sky as I drove up and had to navigate on memory. Lots of loose shale ricocheted off the cliff wall and I passed uncomfortably close to a giant boulder marking the apex of the corner. This was the most hazardous and spectacular gorge I'd ever driven up; later I met two drivers who had abandoned it as too difficult, and turned back; clearly they weren't equipped with Land Rovers…
----- Arriving finally at the top, the landscape changed to a softer, fertile prairie with small shrubs, thin grass and sparse bushes. Camels grazed, nomads herded their flocks and donkeys roamed free. I stopped and walked for a while, enjoying the great silence and natural beauty of this rugged place. A scorpion scuttled off under a stone, and several beetles shared the remains of a coyote's meal.
----- Far across the high plateau were some tall rocky outcrops standing like sentinels, defying the heat, the searing wind and the passage of time. I climbed up to one and was able to view a great broad vista in all directions, a wonderful natural shelter for a nomadic family. Beneath the overhang of this curious rock I discovered the faint remains of a Neolithic rock painting. Looking further I found well preserved drawings of tribal people, cattle and giraffe, the latter extinct in this part of the Sahara for a thousand years.


Land Rover crossing rocky terrain near Chinguetti

----- The drawings were a fascinating glimpse into the lives of early tribesmen who dwelled in these parts at the end of the stone age, and left their indelible mark in these now isolated rocks. These prehistoric testimonials are found in many parts of the Sahara and reveal a wealth of social information telling of a well developed social order among the last of the stone age tribes, some 2,000 to 4,000 years ago.

ENCIRCLING SAND
After more heart-stopping scrambles all day through sandy wadis, sharp rocks and camel thorn scrub, I could now see the great landscape of encircling sand, the dune sea which marked my destiny and my goal. Coming down a little off the plateau I came at last to the old city of Chinguetti, the centre of Moorish culture and the Seventh Holy City of Islam. Now a small and sparsely inhabited village, it is divided by a great sandy wadi negotiable only by camel or the sturdiest of 4wd vehicles.
----- The town is surrounded by a shifting sea of sand which is encroaching on all sides. The narrow streets are filled with sand and are impassable except on foot. Gone are the shuffling herds of camel, victims of time, drought and desertification. Gone too are the great Islamic pilgrimages, assembling together with such spiritual hope for their epic journey across the breadth of the Sahara, to far off Mecca on the Arabian peninsular. Gone is the market, the people, the bustle of life that characterised this important city for so many centuries. This great trek would take several hazardous years, and many pilgrims never returned; their family documents and treasures deposited at the Chinguetti mosque for safe-keeping were never to be reclaimed...
-----The mosque is small and very old and built, like the rest of the old town, of layered stones. The tower is decoratively surmounted by four ostrich eggs which can be seen from far away, to guide travellers across the sands. As an infidel I was not allowed to enter the holy confines of the mosque, but a guide led me, instead, to the adjacent library where countless books and manuscripts record the cultural accumulations of the ages. Here I saw nomadic artefacts of the 16thC, saddle bags, woven camel blankets and assorted camel tack, 15thC family chests of wood and tooled leather, early ceremonial tea sets with teapot and drinking cups.
----- On the floors were stacked piles of manuscripts, apparently well preserved by the desert's arid environment. In the alcoves and built-in shelves were more books. I was handed one, an illustrated treatise on mathematical formulae dating to the 14thC, with beautifully preserved drawings and geometric diagrams. Other documents bore the verse of poets long dead, letters, agreements, commercial slips and messages. Short bamboo tubes with fitted caps contained letters and documents which were passed around the community from one traveller to another until they reached their destiny, many months later. I examined several of these bamboo letters which date from the middle ages, all still in perfect condition.

CULTURAL TREASURE
Further into this wonderful repository I saw rows of documents parcelled up on the floor, a librarian's treasure trove. My guide handed me a fine and weighty volume, hand written and exquisitely illuminated in azure and gold leaf. The pages were made from the finest gazelle skin, the spine and covers of worked camel leather, all stitched with fine thongs. I was holding one of the world's literary treasures, a hand written Koran over 900 years old. Every page was a work of art, every capital letter adorned with the complex abstract designs that so characterise Islamic art.
----- I walked through the old town at dusk watching the light changing on the encroaching dunes. The branching top of a single date palm was all that was left of the old palmerie, now devoured by a fifty foot tidal wave of migrant sand. I was invited into a pilgrims rest house which consisted of a walled garden, partially tented over with a thick camel-hair covering. The roof sloped down to the floor and a gap allowed for the movement of air. The floor was covered by a richly worked Islamic carpet, and cushions were provided for seating around the edges of the reception area. Tea was ordered in the traditional Arabic custom, three small glasses, all sweet, delicious and refreshing.
----- Chinguetti is sited at the beginning of a long rocky escarpment which runs for 1000 miles across the desert towards Timbuktu. I had planned to drive this old pilgrims trail but the desert wind and shifting dunes had obliterated the piste, and the trail hadn't been used for years. No guide was prepared to take me so I re-routed back across the plain to Atar.
----- Leaving Chinguetti was a sombre experience. It had been my privilege to visit this place of so many past glories. The historic town holds powerful memories; the noise and excitement of the camel trains, the herders, the traders, the urchins. The bustle of the pilgrims, the learning, the teaching, the art. All its rich history is slowly slipping into a sand filled oblivion. Like so many desert towns through history, it is a casualty of time and the changing face of mankind's cultural evolution.
----- In a few more generations, Chinguetti will be buried without trace, like so many desert realms before it, and it's memory will be lost in time…And only the old traveller's tales will be able to recount it's glorious past. Kit Constable Maxwell

Other articles...

The Smithsonian Magazine - Endangered Chinguetti
By Jeanne Maglaty , Smithsonian Magazine, quoting Kit Constable Maxwell

A colourful traveller's tale... Desert Photographer's Freedom Dash
by Kit Constable Maxwell

Travel Photography

 

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