A HOLY CITY IN THE SANDS
Desert Expedition to Chinguetti,
January to March 1996
© Kit Constable Maxwell
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.
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!
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.
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
----- 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
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.
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
----- 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
----- 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
Kit Constable Maxwell