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Chinguetti, Mauritania

The Libraries of Chinguetti

Five ancient libraries nearly unchanged since medieval times are slowly being eaten by the desert. 

Resting in the midst of the harsh Mauritanian desert, the stark city of Chinguetti contains some of the world’s most important Quranic texts amidst its simple earthen libraries. 

Originally established in 777 CE, Chinguetti became an important trading city in the region as one of the few outposts in the desert. It also became a gathering place for Islamic pilgrims on their way to Mecca. With the steady traffic of holy people through the city, a large, unadorned mosque was built and small libraries were built to contain the growing number of religious texts left behind. Sticking to the original tradition of trading and passing down such holy writings, most of the original Chinguetti libraries exist in largely the same state as when they were founded. 

Today there are five such libraries left in Chinguetti containing some 1,300 Quranic manuscripts. The crumbling texts are gingerly handled by scholars who still occasionally visit the site to debate Islamic Law. Unfortunately Chinguetti is suffering from the aggressive expansion of the Saharan desert surrounding it and these historically significant texts are in great danger of being destroyed by the dry air and shifting sands. Preservationists have attempted to relocate the collections or set up restoration programs locally, but the private owners of the libraries refuse to let the texts leave the succession of being passed down and traded amongst themselves.

UNSECO has marked the city of Chinguetti and other ancient settlements nearby as World Heritage sites, and efforts are being made to save the city and its libraries from desertification. Unfortunately local political turmoil has made it hard to focus on such projects. With luck Chinguetti will not finally succumb to the sands of time.       

Know Before You Go

With security flags from most states, Mauritainia's tourism flow has dwindled to the point where three of the five libraries are not regularly open. Though El Habbot, the most prolific one, is. In order to gain the most from the trek to Chinguetti, try and get hold of the librarians in advance so they will return from Atar or Nouakchott and open their doors.