Chinguetti is a ksar or medieval trading centre in northern Mauritania, located on the Adrar Plateau east of Atar.
Founded in the 13th century as the center of several trans-Saharan trade routes, this small city continues to attract a handful of visitors who admire its spare architecture, scenery and ancient libraries. The city is seriously threatened by the encroaching desert; high sand dunes mark the western boundary and several houses have been abandoned to the sand.
In 2000, UNESCO designated Chinguetti, along with the cities of Ouadane, Tichitt and Oualata, also in the dunes area, as a World Heritage Site.
Occupied for thousands of years, the Chinguetti region was once a broad savannah. Cave paintings in the nearby Amoghar Pass feature images of giraffes, cows and people in a green landscape. It is quite different from the sand dunes of the desert found in the region today.
The city was founded in 777, and by the 11th century had become a trading center for a confederation of Berber tribes known as the Sanhadja Confederation. It was at the crossroads of trade routes. Soon after settling Chinguetti, the Sanhadja first interacted with and eventually melded with the Almoravids, who controlled 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.
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.
Notable buildings in the town include The Friday Mosque of Chinguetti, an ancient structure of dry-stone construction, featuring a square minaret capped with five ostrich egg finials; the former French Foreign Legion fortress; and a tall watertower. The old quarter of the Chinguetti has five important manuscript libraries of scientific and Qur'anic texts, with many dating from the later Middle Ages.
In recent years, the Mauritanian government, the U.S. Peace Corps, and various NGOs have attempted to position the city as a center for adventurous tourists. Visitors may "ski" down its sand dunes, visit the libraries, and appreciate the stark beauty of the Sahara.
There are plenty of auberges, with beds for as little as 1500 ouguiya. Camping just outside the city is also a popular option. Unfortunately, with the collapse of tourism in the Sahel, many hotels have been forced to close.
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