Chinguetti: City of Libraries

Unassuming village soon became one of the most important trade routes during the middle ages.

Mike Selby

It is almost gone.

The creep of the Sahara Desert has finally caught up with Chinguetti, a small village in Mauritania, West Africa.  Harsh winds have been shifting the Sahara southward at about 30 miles per year.  The unforgiving sands currently all but cover Chinguetti’s abandoned buildings and homes. In little over a decade the village will be buried without a trace.

A small population still lives in the least damaged part of Chinguetti, hanging on to their ancestral homes, dependent on the only industry left to them: tourism.

Tourism? While it may seem odd that a sand-buried ghost town in the middle of nowhere (literally — the one road to get to it is passable only by Humvees or Land Rovers; it is too harsh even for camels), is able to rely on tourist dollars, Chinguetti remains the most visited place in the entire country.  In Arabic, Chinguetti means ‘The City of Libraries.’

Books began to be collected in Chinguetti around the 9th century. By the 13th century, The Friday Mosque was built, making it one of the Seven Holy Cities of Islam. A natural place for pilgrims to stop on their way to Mecca, this unassuming village soon became one of the most important trade routes during the middle ages.  As books began to flourish so did the buildings needed to house them, and the City of Libraries really was just that.

Even as late as the 1950s, Chinguetti boasted 30 libraries — all containing texts preserved throughout the centuries. Today there are only a handful of libraries, operated out of homes of residents refusing to leave.  Even these few still house numerous medieval manuscript written on gazelle skin, bound in vellum.  One family continues to oversee tone of the oldest collection of Islamic books in the world. They have not only constructed iron cabinets to protect this priceless collection, but have recently added a table and chairs to create a makeshift reading room.

The other libraries, reliant on tourist dollars, have no resources to protect their treasures. Their collections are kept on open shelves, exposed to the dry air, dust, and rough handling by visitors. Already brittle, this treatment does nothing to preserve them.

UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) declared

Chinguetti a World Heritage Site back in 1996. Besides the libraries, neolithic cave paintings have been discovered there; depicting a time when the City of Libraries was fertile grassland full of wildlife. Even in prehistoric times, the residents were recording and preserving their knowledge.

However, UNESCO can do little about the Sahara’s movement. The Mauritanian government and the U.S. Peace Corps continue to monitor and aide the last remaining residents, although climate change and ongoing military action continue to hinder efforts.  Where the residents will relocate to, and what will happen to the remaining priceless books is unknown.

What is known is that in little over a decade, the City of Libraries will be no more.

Mike Selby is Reference Libarian at the Cranbrook Public Library