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Librarians of the Desert

The Mauritanian town of Chinguetti, situated toward the end of one of the few paved roads that radiate out of the capital Nouakchott, was once considered among Islam's holiest cities - the city of libraries. Founded in the 12th century as a fortified staging post along trading routes that criss crossed the Sahara, the city served as a gathering place for pilgrims making their way to Mecca. Through interchange with other parts of the Muslim world the city developed into an important centre of Islamic and scientific learning. The Great Friday Mosque of Chinguetti, built around the 13th century, which is said to feature the second oldest minaret in constant use in the world, still stands today. With learning came thousands of tomes covering everything from Quranic studies to science and jurisprudence. These were kept by local families for whom it was an honour and a duty to preserve the priceless works. Yet in the middle of the 20th century the city started to decline. The 1970s saw the construction of mines nearby which drew people away from the town and accelerated climate change over the past half century has brought shifting Sahara sands encroaching into the heart of the settlement, consuming entire buildings. The Western Sahara War, which erupted when Spain withdrew from the region that is today occupied by Morocco, Chinguetti found itself on the edge of a disputed zone, further disrupting daily life. From a peak of 20,000 in habitants around 50 years ago, it today has less than a quarter of that. The draw to the capital remains strong for young people, leaving the town clinging on in its remote desert location.

A UNESCO preservation survey in the 1990s found that there were still 3,450 historical volumes being kept in around 10 libraries around Chinguetti, the largest of which, overseen by the Habott family, is home to about 1,400. Chinguetti, along with four other trading posts nearby, was granted World Heritage Site status in 1996 yet the city's librarians are struggling to preserve their historic bequests.

Most of the books are kept in simple cardboard boxes or lying on mud brick shelves, with the fine desert sand creeping into every crevice.

Aware of the historic importance of the books, the Mauritanian government has made an effort to try and preserve them in the National Museum where modern cleaning and storage technologies are available. The museum has nowhere near enough resources to tackle the enormous task of saving a significant portion of the books known to exist in the country. Only about a tenth of the 33,000 Arabic manuscripts known to exist in Mauritania have reached the museum. And the lack of resources is not the museum's only challenge in the race to preserve the texts.

For many of the guardians of the ancient tomes, surrendering them to a governmental organisation is anathema as they have been in their family's possession for generations and have been passed down from father to son.

Most prefer to keep their books in the rudimentary storage facilities they can afford in their homes. And while this unique library system once drew regular groups of tourists interested in Islamic culture of the region, the recent upsurge in Islamist attacks and kidnappings in the region have started to discourage all but the most daring and intrepid tourists from visiting.

For now, the bone-dry desert air is helping to preserve the historic volumes to some extent yet in the longer term, the librarians of Chinguetti may need to bow to modernity and pass over some of their books to the National Museum and other institutions more able to preserve them for posterity.

Alfredo Caliz made the long journey into Mauritania's vast desert hinterland and visited the guardians of Chinguetti's literary treasures.
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