Founded in the 13th century, as the center of several trans-Saharan trade routes, this tiny city continues to attract a handful of visitors who admire its spare architecture, exotic 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 encroaching sand.
The indigenous Saharan architecture of older sectors of the city features reddish dry stone and mud-brick houses, featuring flat roofs timbered from palms. Many of the older houses feature hand-hewn doors cut from massive ancient acacia trees that have long disappeared from the surroundings. 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 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 is home to 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, allowing visitors to "ski" down its sand dunes, visit its libraries and appreciate the stark beauty of the Sahara.
The Chinguetti region has been occupied for thousands of years and once was a broad savannah. Cave paintings in the nearby Amoghar Pass feature pictures of giraffes, cows and people in a green landscape quite different from the sand dunes of the desert landscape found in the region today.
The city was originally founded in 777, and by the 11th century had become a trading center for a confederation of Berber tribes known as the Sanhadja Confederation. Soon after settling Chinguetti, the Sanhadja first interacted with and eventually melded with the Almoravids, the founders of the Moorish Empire which stretched from present-day Senegal to Spain. 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 Maghrib.
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 still date from this period.
|Ancient Ksour of Ouadane, Chinguetti, Tichitt and Oualata*|
|UNESCO World Heritage Site|
|Criteria||iii, iv, v|
|Inscription||1996 (20th Session)|
* Name as inscribed
on World Heritage List.
** Region as classified by UNESCO.
For centuries the city was a principal gathering place for pilgrims of the Maghrib to gather on the way to Mecca. It became known as a holy city in its own right, especially for pilgrims unable to make the long journey to the Arab Peninsula. It also became a center of Islamic religious and scientific scholarship in West Africa. In addition to religious training, the schools of Chinguetti taught students rhetoric, law, astronomy, mathematics, and medicine. For many centuries all of Mauritania was popularly known in the Arab world as Bilad Shinqit, "the land of Chinguetti." Chinguetti is locally said to be the seventh most holy city of Islam. There is no recognition of this claim outside of West Africa, but whatever its ranking, the city remains one of the world's most important historical sites both in terms of the history of Islam and the history of West Africa.
Although largely abandoned to the desert, the city features a series of medieval manuscript libraries without peer in West Africa, and the area around the Rue des Savants was once famous as a gathering place for scholars to debate the finer points of Islamic law. Today its deserted streets continue to reflect the urban and religious architecture of the Moorish empire as it existed in the Middle Ages.
World heritage site
Today, along with the cities of Ouadane, Tichitt and Oualata, Chinguetti has been designated as a World heritage site. The Friday Mosque of Chinguetti, is widely considered by Mauritanians to be the national symbol of the country. Mauritania's recently discovered offshore oilfield was named Chinguetti in its honor.
Ahmad ibn al-Amin al-Shinqiti (1863–1913) is one of Mauritania's most famous writers.
- Chinguetti oil field - Mauritania's first offshore oil field
- UNESCO on Chinguetti
- "The Treasures in Mauritania's Dunes" in The Courier, December, 2000
- Mauritania Today - Chinguetti
- A "Saudi Aramco World" article on Chinguetti's manuscripts
- U.S. Department of State Reports - Mauritania
- Palin's Travels - Chinguetti
- Desert libraries