After its initial arrival in the Maghreb, Islam took centuries to slowly diffuse down into Western Africa. When it finally did, a number of cities sprang up in the Sahara to help facilitate the spreading of Islam southwards and trade from the rich coastlands northwards. The earliest of these to rise to prominence was Chinguetti in Mauritania. Chinguetti was the first major Islamic city in the Western Sahara, and the Masjid Chinguetti the first major mosque to be built south of the Maghreb. Locals highly regard their religious architectural treasure, and maintain that the Masjid Chinguetti is the seventh holiest site in Islam, and that its minaret the second oldest in continual use. Although both claims are challenged by virtually every Muslim outside of Mauritania, there is no doubt of the Masjid Chinguetti’s historical and spiritual importance to the region. The Chinguetti Mosque is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Chinguetti is the oldest Muslim founded city in the Western Sahara. While earlier civilizations did exist on the site, it wasn’t until the 11th century that Berber tribes reorganized Chinguetti as a trading center. Right around the time of its founding, Chinguetti was absorbed into the empire of the Almoravids which sprawled from Senegal to Spain. It would later be dominated to a lesser extent by the Almohads. During both periods, which lasted until the 13th century, Chinguetti remained a relatively quiet frontier town on the southwestern fringe of Muslim civilization.
After the decline of the Almohads, Chinguetti experienced a significant renaissance. Islam was quickly expanding towards the west coast of Africa, and Chinguetti was rebuilt as a major transit center. It was around this time that the Masjid Chinguetti, also known as the Friday Mosque, was built, apparently on the site of an earlier mosque. It was, for a time, the largest and most important mosque in the Sahara, and its construction cemented the religious importance of the city.
For the next century or so, Chinguetti and the Friday Mosque was the most important Islamic religious and educational center in West Africa. Virtually every desert-bound caravan passed through Chinguetti during this early period, so that it became an important way station for Muslims on pilgrimage. In fact, Chinguetti became a pilgrimage destination in and of itself for those Muslims who did not have the ability or means to go any further. The Friday Mosque also served as the leading Islamic educational facility, and was the base for many Muslim missionaries who sought to extend Islam into West Africa.
By the 15th century, Chinguetti was surpassed by other cities such as Timbuktu and Djenne as the preeminent Islamic center in the region. Its slow decline began around this time, a decline that accelerated during the European colonial period, when caravan travel dried up in favor of seabourne traffic along the Atlanic coast. Although many pilgrims still visit the city’s mosque and shrines, and although the cities schools and libraries are still in active use, Chinguetti’s population is nowhere near what it once was. Nevertheless it is still considered Mauritania’s principal religious city.
The city of Chinguetti appears as though it came straight out of a French Foreign Legion movie, with centuries-old brick buildings and towers rising amidst the towering dunes which enclose the city on all sides. The Friday Mosque and its minaret dominate the city skyline, such as it is. Largely dating from the 13th century, the mosque is built of brick and stone that looks as though they were simply piled up in romantic looking if rough walls. This rough appearance is deceptive, and the mosque has survived for over seven hundred years with minimal renovation.
The most prominent element of the mosque is its simple square minaret, which apparently dates from an even earlier period. This ancient minaret, extremely simple in its design and construction, is claimed by locals to be the second oldest functioning minaret in the Islamic world. It is certainly the oldest functioning minaret in the Sahara Desert. Despite the Chinguetti’s decline, Muslims in the region still take the sanctity of the site very seriously.
The Masjid Chinguetti is located on the outskirts of the old city of Chinguetti, a little under 300 miles east of Nouakchott. The area is difficult to reach, and the encroaching sands of the Sahara Desert doesn’t make it any easier. While it can be expected that locals will certainly do everything in their power to maintain the site, the Masjid Chinguetti is without a doubt one of the world’s most endangered Islamic shrines. As of this writing, no other visitor information was available. Web: No official websites.
While Mauritania enjoys a rich Islamic heritage, especially along the old caravan routes to Mali, most of its ancient religious sites have long been reclaimed by the desert. The country’s largest mosque is the Grand Mosque in Nouakchott, Mauritania’s coastal capital.