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Sahara

Day 27: Chinguetti

Chinguetti, Mauritania 
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With a little help from my friends, I'm never short of advice in my struggle against the Grand Master of Chinguetti.
Michael Palin - SaharaBeckoning us into the shade, he orders two of the senior boys, clearly his favourites, to offer round a wooden bowl of zrig, a thick mixture of goat milk, water, millet and sugar.

In a voice thin and husky from a lifetime of summoning the faithful he tells us that the minaret is the second oldest in continuous use anywhere in the Muslim world. Until very recently, he says, he used to climb up and make the call to prayer from the top of the tower; now he's not strong enough and has to rely on a microphone down below.

Along a side street nearby, the word 'Bibliothèque' is scrawled in white paint on the stone lintel of an otherwise inconspicuous doorway. Stepping inside, I find myself in a room, no more than 15 feet square, with bamboo mats on the floor and rough-plastered walls. An old man rises to greet me.

Behind him, stacked on shelves, are bundles of papers wrapped in leather bindings or manila folders. They are books and documents of extraordinary beauty, many of them 600 or 700 years old. In some cases the pages have come loose from their bindings, but in all of them the quality of the work is exquisite. They have been in his family for centuries and he treats the texts like old friends, moving his finger from right to left, as the Chinese and Japanese do, across the delicate, spidery calligraphy.

There is a commentary on the Koran, with notes around the margins, and a book of Islamic law, still clearly readable, detailing legal procedures - numbers of witnesses, rights of the accused - all dating back to the golden days when Chinguetti was one of the great centres of Islamic scholarship.
Chinguetti, Mauritania 
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Three of my champion crottes.
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PALIN'S GUIDES

  • Series: Sahara
  • Day: 27
  • Country/sea: Mauritania
  • Place: Chinguetti
  • Book page no: 94

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