Today it’s only a village hidden in the desert of Mauritania, which with its sands inexorably advances to the south, swallowing what remains of an ancient culture. Chinguetti is almost a ghost town, divided into two by a ravine of sand, which separates the newer part from the ancient city.
But Chinguetti is a sacred place of Islam, where, between the 13th and 17th centuries, thousands of pilgrims stopped on their way to Mecca, and caravans of merchants carrying wool, dates, and came back with precious goods like gold, ivory and slaves.
Chinguetti, which today has only a few thousand inhabitants, was once an important Ksar (fortified city) where 20,000 people lived, and a centre for scholars of science, religion, law, medicine, mathematics and astronomy in West Africa. A principal gathering place for pilgrims on their way to Mecca, it even became known as a holy city in its own right and over time, it was recognised as the seventh holy city of Islam, the “City of Libraries”, in fact, there were 24 libraries.
It’s incredible that still today, in the old houses cooked by a merciless sun, thousands of ancient and precious books are still preserved today, some in very bad condition, torn by time and by the termites, others still well preserved.
There are for example two precious books of the Koran, and volumes written by local scholars, and others from Egypt, Syria and the Maghreb.
As recently as the 1950s, Chinguetti was home to an impressive thirty family-owned libraries, but a bad drought saw the town’s residents disappear, taking their books passed down from generations with them.
Of the ancient libraries, today less than ten survive, traditionally guarded by local families. The most important of the remaining library has 1600 volumes, kept in a room that resembles, despite the unconventional position, a traditional library, with registers and reading tables. Among some of the world’s most important Islamic manuscripts on religion, science and literature, the books are written on gazelle skin and protected by goatskin. The wealthiest library, which houses the most important collection in the old quarter and is considered one of the oldest libraries of Islam, is owned by the Mohammed Habbot family.
The only means of livelihood of the Chinguetti’s inhabitants is tourism: there are always a few of adventurous travelers who travel a hundred kilometers in the desert to admire the rock paintings of the nearby Amoghar Pass (where you can see a green landscape inhabited by people and animals), and to be amazed at the precious books, an unsuspected patrimony that risks ending up destroyed.
Years ago a photographer predicted that Chinguetti would not have remained track: “Like many cities in the desert, it is a victim of time and the changing face of the cultural evolution of humanity”, and in 1996, UNESCO declared Chinguetti a World Heritage Site, but despite efforts to conserve it, it seems impossible to prevent the inevitable. In fact, the sands of the Sahara will creep between the mud bricks and the pages of books, and will forever cover centuries of history.