Deep in the Sahara desert, in the North West African nation of Mauritania lies the oasis city of Chinguetti.
Founded in the eleventh century, the city stood at the cross roads of the old trans-Saharan trade routes.
This desert is famous for its camel caravans, which in their heyday transported goods across North Africa.
Along with commerce, manuscripts from the Arab world were traded here, making Chinguetti a centre of learning.
Cultural and social development took place around this trade, most significantly a large collection of manuscripts originating from Mauritania and across the Middle East.
Today the trans-Saharan trade routes of old are no more, and the desert is doing its best to reclaim this city.
And the manuscripts, which are part of the town and Mauritania’s rich cultural heritage, are under threat from the elements.
Saif Ahmed Mamoud is the proprietor of the Ahmed Mamoud family library.
The collection began in 1699, and comprises over 700 manuscripts today.
This rich literary cultural heritage originates from around the Arab world, the manuscripts covering subjects as diverse as religion, mathematics, literature and astronomy.
“Chinguetti has many books, many manuscripts, the most important thing about these books is the most religious part of the manuscripts,” he explains.
In February 2021 leaders from five West African nations and France agreed to step up the fight against Islamic extremists in the Sahel region, which included Mauritania.
The leaders also vowed to further strengthen a regional force known as the G5 Sahel force that was launched in 2017. It is made up of soldiers from Mali, Burkina Faso, Chad, Niger and Mauritania who operate in cooperation with French troops.
Mamoud says the threat of terrorism in the past and now COVID has stemmed the flow of visitors to Chinguetti, but tourists have started to trickle back.
“Chinguetti once was slightly threatened by terrorists, Chinguetti (which is a) corner of wisdom, corner of peace, corner of calm, corner of tranquillity, was threatened by this plague. In 1995, there was a little hope that the city could welcome tourists. But alas terrorism prevented tourists (from coming) and (tourism) stopped for a while. There is COVID-19 and tourism stops again. But this year, there is a small return of tourism, we’re optimistic and everyone is happy,” he explains.
French tourist Guillerm Youenn says he is keen to learn more about the country.
“So I came with friends and we wanted to visit the library which is very important for Mauritania. We learned a lot of things.”
Another of the town’s historic libraries is owned by the Habott family, which boasts over 1400 manuscripts.
The oldest manuscript in the Habott library dates back to the eleventh century.
Over and above wear and tear, one of the issues facing Chinguetti’s manuscripts is termites explains owner Ahmed Ould Habott.
“So to preserve (the books) we began to put powders in the containers, basins of water, products for the preservation of books so that they wouldn’t be destroyed by termites and insects. But recently, we took out all these manuscripts three months ago and we have them in the sun, and under the heat of the sun we added salt to protect them against insects.”
The nearby Eden hotel embraces the town’s literary legacy offering guests a selection of books in each guest room.
“The books that are in the rooms are extremely important for tourists, as they teach them a lot about life here in Chinguetti. Tourists appreciate this very much. The respect for these books is very striking when people discover them. In general, people who have time come back to read until they are sleepy and they rest the book on the side.” explains the manager Ali Eden.
Chinguetti is part of a UNESCO World Heritage Site, which was inscribed in 1996.