A Day in the Ancient City of Chinguetti
About 2 hours east of Atar is the ancient city of Chinguetti. Instead of paying for a multiple-day tour, we decided to hitchhike here for a day trip. While hitchhiking is difficult in Mauritania, we managed to score a ride in the back of a pickup truck. The ride was one of the prettiest we had seen in the country and we blasted through the desert, traversing over rugged hills and overlooking valleys that bore the signs of once being filled with water.
We arrived in the city mid-day and the place was a bit of a ghost town. People seemed confused as to why we were not accompanied by a Mauritanian guide and of course, some even took the opportunity to try and fill the void.
Chinguetti used to be the name of the entire country. It’s historic significance derives from it having been an important trading destination and an important stop along the African route to Mecca and Medina. It was a city renowned for its scholars and we were told it was still acknowledged as the seventh city of Islam, however, this fact is widely disputed. (We have learned to take such statements with a grain of salt in this part of the world as people are sometimes nonfactual in their local claims to fame. Some people in Morocco told us that the first human remains had been discovered there). However, Chinguetti undoubtedly had a storied past filled with rich history and we were glad we had come to check it out.
The city was actually on it’s third incarnation due to incessant desertification. To find remnants of the first city, built in 777, you have to dig all day in the sand just to uncover the top layers of the once widely populated area. After the sands claimed that city, a second one was built, in 1264, a few kilometers away, and was used as the center until colonization when the French built an expansion in 1917. As is the familiar story of the shitty age of colonialism, the French attempted to impose their customs on local Mauritanians, which was met with resistance so locals made efforts maintain some separation from their new foreign oppressors to preserve their culture and religious expression. It seemed to us that this current version of the city was also doomed to the same fate and locals told us about preservation efforts in the works to prevent the desert from once again reclaiming their home.
We had heard about three sites particularly worthy of visiting: the second-oldest minaret of a mosque still in use today and two ancient libraries. None of these historic landmarks disappointed.
The mosque was quite impressive. It is over 800-years old and the minaret was built using un-mortared, split-stone masonry. We arrived at the mosque just in time to see men beginning to file in for afternoon prayer, but nobody except one pestering kid seemed perturbed by our presence. The mosque is surrounded by a maze of what used to be the old city, before the desert took over and the city had to be rebuilt. However, the mosque still stands (thanks to a UNESCO effort to preserve and repair it) and it is quite striking to be in the presence of something so old and being able to walk freely around the surroundings really gave us an opportunity to imagine what life would have been like in this once-lively city’s heyday. Had it not been for the scattering of satellite dishes on the rooftops of houses, the city would look very much the same as it did 500 years ago.
The libraries were both closed when we arrived but there were phone numbers listed on the walls so it was quite easy to call and make an “appointment” to view them. We figured since we hadn’t arranged for a tour, the curators were not expecting any afternoon guests. While we waited on the first library to open, we sat in one of the few slivers of shade talking about how rough life would be in such an isolated, desolate environment.
We were soon greeted by the first curator of the library, a proud man who we assumed was a descendant from the family who had been taking care of the library for generations. The library was full of ancient Korans and books on mathematics, astronomy, poetry, and Islamic law. Many of the books are “preserved” (ie. shoved in a few cardboard boxes on a dilapidated shelves) and so we could not see them in person but a few were on display and the man handled them with the most delicate care.
The second library was run by a jovial older man who insisted on sitting us down for a history lesson, which we were very appreciative of (and where we gained much of the information for this article!) He explained three different reasons for the name change of the country to Mauritania. The one he found most credible was the theory that the country was inhabited by darker skinned Moors who were referred to as “tan Moors”, hence Mauritania. Again, history lessons here are taken with a grain of salt, but we thought it was a cool story.
He told us the people of Chinguetti were mostly Sufi, which he described as being a more spiritual sect of Islam, that prefers a more simplistic and apolitical lifestyle. Inside the mosque, there were no decorations on the walls nor any prayer carpets. He explained this was to remind adherents to the majesty of the desert. “We come from the sand and we will return to the sand and we must be reminded of that”, he said.
After our history lesson was completed, we made our way through the tiny door of the library where the curator proceeded to show us the selection of books. It was not as large as the first library but he did have quite a few poetry books and began to recite some for us accompanied by full-on theatrics. When we had finished looking at the texts, we asked how much we owed for the tour. I was nervous since we usually do this at the beginning so as to avoid the awkward tension that comes with attempting to negotiate a price after receiving a service. However, the man insisted it was by donation only. However, we still paid the same amount as we had at the first library (100 Ouguiya/each).
We had set a time limit of 17:00 to leave, which would still have given us two hours or so of daylight to hitchhike back to Atar. We walked to the edge of town but every car that stopped for us said that the last trucks heading back had already left and that no more would be heading that way at nighttime. We are also used to people saying this as an attempt to get us to pay for a taxi or stay at a guesthouse, so we kept up the effort until finally the sun was starting to set and we were starting to contemplate the option of having to spend the night in Chinguetti.
Usually we come prepared with our hammock and sleeping bags, but I had insisted that this wouldn’t be necessary as we would ensure just to leave enough time to get back. Whoops. As the sun continued to dip, a man in a 4×4 stopped for us and said that he wasn’t going to Atar that night but was going the next morning. He called up his friend, who owned a guesthouse, and organized a super fair price for us to be able to stay for the night (300 Ouguiya).
We were a bit bummed to have to shell it out for a night’s stay, even if it was a good price, so we arrived at Auberge Zarga a little deflated. However, we were provided with a cozy bungalow with two mattresses, WiFi, and hot showers (which we ultimately didn’t take advantage of), and a giant, delicious chicken and pasta meal (for an additional 100 Ouguiya). The owner was a lovely man with a very inspirational life story.
He had grown up dirt poor being the only son of an imam, along with his mother and two sisters, in Chinguetti. When he couldn’t afford to continue his studies, he used what he had to open his first auberge, offering quality lodging at a cheap price. Even during the coups and the civil unrest in the country, he still managed to keep the place open due primarily to word of mouth. He ultimately was so successful in this first endeavor that he was able to open another location in Atar, which he was currently in the process of building up. He told us he had an organic garden, which he went to great lengths to maintain by having to water the plants multiple times a day to avoid them being destroyed by the blistering sun. In his spare time he also ran a theater troupe, which traveled to rural areas putting on plays for children. “I don’t have a lot of money but I still wanted to make a difference so this is the way I can,” he told us. At the end of our dinner we no longer felt bummed about having to spend the night at Auberge Zarga.
Chinguetti is definitely a place not to be missed. If you can afford to go on a multiple-day tour, you will not be disappointed. However, if you are on a tight budget like us, making the day trip to Chinguetti is worth the effort.