Mauritania: ancient manuscripts attract tourists to historic desert town
Deep in the Sahara Desert, in the northwest African nation of Mauritania lies the oasis town of Chinguetti.
Founded in the 11th century, the city was located at the crossroads 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 trade, manuscripts from the Arab world were exchanged there, making Chinguetti a center of learning.
A cultural and social development took place around this trade, in particular an important collection of manuscripts originating in Mauritania and the Middle East.
Today, the old trans-Saharan trade routes no longer exist and the desert is doing its best to reclaim this city.
And the manuscripts, which are part of the rich cultural heritage of the city and of Mauritania, are threatened by the elements.
Saif Ahmed Mamoud is the owner of the Ahmed Mamoud family library.
The collection began in 1699 and today includes over 700 manuscripts.
This rich literary cultural heritage comes from the Arab world, with 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, the leaders of five West African countries and France agreed to step up the fight against Islamic extremists in the Sahel region, including Mauritania.
The leaders also pledged to further strengthen a regional force known as the G5 Sahel force which was launched in 2017. It is made up of soldiers from Mali, Burkina Faso, Chad, Niger and Mauritania which 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 return.
“Chinguetti once was slightly threatened by terrorists, Chinguetti (which is a) corner of wisdom, corner of peace, corner of calm, corner of tranquility, was threatened by this scourge. In 1995, there was a little hope that the city can accommodate tourists. But alas terrorism has prevented tourists (from coming) and (tourism) has stopped for a while. There is COVID-19 and tourism still stops. But this year, there is a small comeback in tourism, we are optimistic and everyone is happy, “he explains.
French tourist Guillerm Youenn says he’s keen to learn more about the country.
“So I came with some friends and we wanted to visit the library which is very important for Mauritania. We have learned a lot of things.
Another historic library in the city is owned by the Habott family, which has more than 1,400 manuscripts.
The oldest manuscript in the Habott library dates from the 11th century.
Beyond wear and tear, one of the problems Chinguetti’s manuscripts face are termites, says owner Ahmed Ould Habott.
“So to preserve (the books) we started to put powders in the containers, water basins, products for preserving books so that they are not destroyed by termites and insects. But recently, we took all these manuscripts out three months ago and put them in the sun, and under the hot sun, we added salt to protect them from insects. “
The nearby Eden hotel embraces the city’s literary heritage by providing guests with a selection of books in every room.
“The books that are in the rooms are extremely important for tourists, because 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. Usually people who have time to come back and read until they are sleepy and put the book aside, ”manager Ali Eden explains.
Chinguetti is part of a UNESCO World Heritage Site, which was inscribed in 1996.