The Forgotten Desert Libraries of Chinguetti

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The ancient desert town of Chinguetti, in Mauritania, on the western edge of the Sahara, has changed little since it was founded more than twelve centuries ago. The houses are still built of reddish dry-stone and mud, with flat roofs made of timber panels from palm trees. The stone walls are punctured with tiny windows and hand-hewn doors cut from massive ancient acacia trees, which have long disappeared from the surrounding area. Many of these houses now lie in ruins, abandoned by their owners to escape the encroaching sand of the vast Sahara. Once a thriving metropolis of 200,000, Chinguetti now has only a few thousand residents left. As the town slowly disappears under the sand, some of the last remaining families cling desperately to their precious treasure — one of the finest collection of ancient Islamic manuscripts.


Photo credit: Michał Huniewicz

Located at the crossroads of several trade routes through the Sahara, Chinguetti became an important trading center by the 11th century. Desert caravans would use the city as an oasis, stopping to peddle their wares and let the thousands of camels take rest. Later, it became a gathering place for pilgrims on their way to Mecca. As thousands of learned men passed through this place, exchange of religious and scientific ideas took place and the reputation of the small city flourished. What was once just a stopover point quickly became a destination in its own right. For centuries, people from all over West Africa travelled to Chinguetti to study religion as well as law, astronomy, mathematics, and medicine.

Half a century ago, there were said to be 30 libraries with ancient leader-bound volumes and thousands of manuscripts. Now only five survive. These private libraries are watched over by the same families who’ve been passing down their literary treasures for generations. Lying in open shelves in the harsh desert climate, these precious artifacts are slowly crumbling away to dust.

The government of Mauritania has been attempting to acquire these delicate manuscripts from their keepers so that they could be preserved, but the families refuse to part with their legacy. It’s an honor to keep them.

"Would you part with your hand or your foot? It is a part of us," says Seif Islam, the manager of the local secondary school, who has 700 dusty volumes in his collection.

These librarians, however, will eagerly show their collection to any tourist curious enough to see them. 

It is estimated that there are 33,000 ancient texts in the country, but only a couple thousand have been properly cleaned and archived in the National Museum.‬


Photo credit: Michał Huniewicz


Photo credit: Michał Huniewicz


Photo credit: Michał Huniewicz


Photo credit: Michał Huniewicz


Photo credit: Christophe André/Flickr


Photo credit: Christophe André/Flickr


An ancient Quran. Photo credit: Ammar Hassan/Flickr


Photo credit: Ammar Hassan/Flickr


A thousand year old Quran. Photo credit: Paul Williams

Sources: The Guardian / The Daily Beast / Wikipedia

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