The jewel in Mauritania’s crown is the historic city of Chinguetti deep in the middle of the country forever being reclaimed by the Sahara desert. This quiet little backwater was once the 7th most important city in Sunni Islam. A centre of learning it harks back to the 8th century AD and was an important starting point for Muslim West African pilgrims to commence the long pilgrimage to perform a Haj.
The excavated and preserved historical section lies well below the level of the present day city and features a restored, photogenic, pretty minaret. The real highlight, though, is what prompted UNESCO to designate this as a world heritage site. These are the antiquities found there and a magnificent library under lock and key that goes back to the 8th century with original manuscripts that is still owned by the family of a wizened charismatic old man who speaks to us at length and shows us around. While his belief that this is his family’s heritage and rightfully belongs to him is perfectly correct, I can’t help worrying that these unique and priceless manuscripts are deteriorating because of the way that they are being kept and handled.
From there it is a crazy four wheel drive across the Sahara to Ouadane. There is no road here. There are shallow tracks in the sand from previous drivers but our driver does not always follow them. It is hot and the desert sands are featureless yet our driver like a homing pigeon successfully navigates us first to an oasis and then to our present city of Ouadane.
This place is similarly amazing for history buffs. Set on a mesa above us is the new city of Oudane but on the slopes of the hillside up is the abandoned stone city of old Oudane constructed between the 12th and 18th century AD. It is an amazing labyrinth of winding alleyways and well preserved houses that makes for a great couple of hours of walking and sightseeing.
The city of Atar en route