Nature is both benevolent and malevolent in the way that it can in one instance provide the perfect environment for life to survive, whilst in another part of the world creating a state of change which impacts on the way places can survive.
In the sub-Saharan country of Mauritania the Sahara is constantly on the move, with scientists estimating that it is moving south at a rate of 30 to 40 kilometres per year. At that rated, it will soon engulf the heritage-listed town of Chinguetti, which stands in the way of the fast-approaching desert.
This town, which is almost entirely constructed out of stone and mud brick due to the lack of other materials, lies on the Adrar Plateau in Northern Mauritania. The town was established as a trading centre in the 13th century, mainly because it is located near an oasis which had a constant source of water.
In its heyday, up to 30,000 camels would gather in the town simultaneously as many of the caravans met there to conduct their trade and exchange goods. The trade route ran north south linking the Mediterranean coast with West Africa. Whilst agricultural products, such as wool, barley and dates, were carried south, the north-bound goods were less benign, and included ivory, gold and slaves.
Not only was Chinguetti an important trading centre is was also a place of Islamic learning. One of the featured buildings in the town is the Friday Mosque, where pilgrims would gather to pray and study whilst on their way to Mecca.
This is a magnificent building which features a square minaret tower that is said to be the second oldest continuously-used tower anywhere in the Muslim world. As well as the religious study that was conducted here the schools of Chinguetti taught students rhetoric, law, astronomy, mathematics, and medicine.
Although the town once boasted a population of over 20,000 there is now a mere fraction of that number living in the town now, and one of the main activities is tourism.
Mauritania is one of the least visited countries in Africa, and in order to boost tourism to Chinguetti the local authorities have introduced adventure sports such as dune surfing, which is ironic, given that the town’s existence is threatened by the onward passage of the sand.
Nevertheless, for adventurers, Chinguetti is an interesting place to visit, not only because of its architecture, but because the surrounding area with its great dunes and deep blue skies is an amazing landscape which deserves to be experienced.