The Wind and the City

Once upon a time, the Wind grew jealous of the prosperous cities and resolved to bury them beneath the sands so that the only traces were old men and dusty books.

So it was that the wind crashed against the purple stone mass of the Adrar, a mountain range that crosses Mauritania in West Africa.

It blew until the rocks were carved into sculptures of fearful complexity. It blew until the dunes advanced: Chinguetti and Ouadane, two once mighty cities of scholars and traders of the Sahara, began to choke under the ocean of sand.

Today they are almost gone.

Mauritania, the country of the Moors, is a good place to start to search for the winds responsible.

As a country, it is a creation of the French colonial age and they used its vast emptiness as a place of political exile. It was not always so. Mauritania, or the territory it covers, was once fertile with lakes and rivers, elephants and hippopotamuses. Men hunted here until the Sahara started to spread 10000 years ago.

You can see the wind in Mauritania everywhere: in the dusty, chapped faces of the children, in the colourful, billowing dresses of the women and of course the patterns in the sand. The shape of the wind, at once curvaceous and soft, belies its remorseless breath. Some of the winds seem to jangle like loose change in your pocket, some whisper like lovers in your ear. Others shriek at you like the deranged. All carry sand.

The once mighty city of Chinguetti doesn’t rise out of the desert like oasis cities are supposed to. To find it, one must climb the twenty metre high cliffs of sand that tower over it.

Chinguetti, the famous ksour (trading city) is desperately straining for air, drowning as surely as the wind blows.

From the third century AD, the Berber tribes established trading routes all over the Sahara. By the time of Islam, Chinguetti had become the centre of this world. The present stone built city can be dated to the twelfth or thirteenth century but it is likely that there were substantial settlements here much earlier.

Its original name, Biland Chinguel means ‘The place to water your horse’. As such, Chinguetti was always a place of travellers and was really a kind of port city. The merchants established trading routes and took their city’s name to Arabia in the north and deep into black African Nigeria in the south. Their goods found their way to Europe via Venice and Genoa.

It was not uncommon for caravans leaving here to be as large as 30000 camels, all laden with gold, spices and slaves from the interior. With such trade came learning and the spread of the new faith. Chinguetti remains the seventh holiest city in Islam and once had 12 mosques and 25 madrasses (koranic schools).

There is a saying that the beginning of Mauritania was Chinguetti. Indeed Odette du Puigaudeau, the French photographer and explorer who travelled here extensively between 1933 and 1938 reports that Chinguetti,

“Was still the intellectual heart of the country… we can still find professors of mathematics, astronomy, poetry and history… the city is the rose of the sands.”

Yet Chinguetti’s fate was always tied up with caravans, the underground water table and the wind.

If Mauritania is a country of dying ancient cities what remains are the books.

Chinguetti has many private libraries holding some 40000 precious documents, treaties and priceless Korans.

Sid’ Ahmed Ould Ahmed is a keeper of one such library. When I ask his age, he shows me his birth certificate, which shows 1965... He is probably about 60, a very old man in this country. He has no idea of his true age; time doesn’t mean so much here,

“Everything is old”

And he gestures to the shelves that surround us on three sides. They heave with books ravaged by age. Many are so fragile that if opened would crumble to dust. There are scrolls, Korans and letters, an extraordinary collection

“Young people leave Chinguetti now when they finish the Madrassa. They have to go to the cities to find work… only the memories stay here.”

“The memory of Chinguetti is in the books…” he says.

“I have dedicated my life to the books and it is a pleasure for me to open their pages to the people of the world…”

Then he is silent, squatting on the reed mat on the dusty floor almost exhausted by the enormity of his responsibility.

Later a young man, wrapped in the howli - the scarf/turban of the region holds a priceless treaty of religion in a square of light. The worn and faded pages glow, but through the cracks in the stone wall you can hear the wind voicing its displeasure like a spiteful child.

The city of Chinguetti is now split into two parts. The old Ksour and the ‘new’ town where most people have to live. Together they hold perhaps only 4-500 families but between them is half a mile of wadi that is a wind trap. Women and children cling to each other and their dresses flow and flap as they cross the sandy valley. When the wind is really strong, you can't see the other side.

Across this divide, the muezzin from the ancient square turreted mosque calls the people to prayer. The call belies the only certainties here: faith and the rumblings from the desert. The last 30 years have seen a great acceleration of the desertification process, yet defiantly trees grow throw the floors of disused houses on the edge of the old city.

The people here are hardened and wary. The streets are always empty. Hard edged shadows skirt the tight, sandy streets and vanish. Faces are nearly always covered. The place is full of secrets that the visitors can never know.

“To understand the cities you must speak to the Nomads,” says Mohammed Salak, the genial headmaster of the local school.

“They are the link between the desert and the ksours - people that live by the wind…”.

His wife has just served the traditional three short cups of strong tea and after, I ask her if she likes living here.

“Are you crazy?” She snaps. Salak winces. He is from here, but his young, recent bride is from the capital. Chinguetti is hard for new wives.

“Look. We have four winds”, says Mohammed, an incredulous Nomad. We sit in his tent surrounded flies and half naked, filthy, happy children. Outside, as far as the eye can see is sand and sky.

“There is the Geble, that is blowing now. Cold at night, a great deal of dust. In the mid summer, we have the Irivi . That blows hard and hot and it kills the goats and sometimes men. (I later find out that this wind blows for perhaps two weeks every year and reaches temperatures of between 55 and 60 degrees). The Sahalia is cold and comes from the sea. Its cousin is the Chergi. That’s the same but with more sand. It is a simple matter of fact explanation for a fool from the city.”

“What does the wind mean to us?” Ponders Hajji, the leathery, toothless elder.

“It blows out our fires!”

And the tent erupts into laughter.

But the nomads are not portrayed in the folklore of this country as wise men for nothing.

Still in tune with the elements, many say they can tell the seasons or the time by the small of the breeze. They survive by an old song of humanity and within their collective memory is the unconscious echo of a prehistoric Sahara. We camp near Ben Amira, a huge monolith, where paintings on a secluded rock show men hunting gazelle with spears.

Tonight is a starry, clear night. Only the occasional coughing of a sick old woman reminds you that the nomad's time may be short as their lives are changing too. They have no one to trade with and their camels are dying because of lack of rain. The wind seems calm as well - almost like it knows that it will be alone again here soon.

The Mauritania poet, Ould Adoulbam has it that

“Life here is not eternal, only God is eternal”.

And he might well have been speaking of Ouadane, Chinguetti’s smaller cousin.

Ouadane we are told was a warrior’s city with camel drivers from the Sudan and pirates from the desert.

Here the houses were built of pink and grey sandstone with mortar of clay and straw. The old city is now deserted, but a guide lingers for money. Ouadane is enchanting and at sunset a man’s ‘bou-bou’ (the traditional dress) flaps in the breeze overlooking the pink walls of the city.

Sidi Mukhtar Ould Mohammed Hama is 42 years old and has lived here all his life. He is resigned to his fate. There has been no rain here for 7 years and there’s little water left. He doesn’t say, and you don’t mention that he won't be here for much longer.

“We have to pray all the time now… the young people lose all their traditions… all one has is the family and the religion…”

Somehow the desert seems to swallow memories. Its winds confuse and destroy those that attempt to challenge it. Herodotus in his Histories speaks of a wind that swallowed a king’s army sent against it. Always there is man’s recurrent anxiety that his name will not survive in this environment. Still for Chinguetti and Ouadane, this era of the wind is but another chapter in the rise and fall of men and his cities in a changing landscape.

However, the ksours are not dead yet. The United Nations have declared both cities World Heritage sites. That means an attempt to preserve at least what remains.

The memories linger too in the traditional patterns used in their buildings. They are still to be seen on the hennaed hands and feet of Mauritanian women and in the embroidery of the garments of the men.

The songs of Chinguetti and Ouadane, the Awdid’s - traditionally sung whilst loading the camel trains, are still played on the Moorish lute all over the country.

Their notes are carried by the wind.

© Stuart Freedman