Cultural Heritage Endangered in Mauritania

The Koran on Gazelle Skin

Secular and religious texts have been collected in private libraries in the caravan city of Chinguetti since the twelfth century. Now climate change and termites are threatening this valuable heritage. Marc Engelhardt reports from Mauritania

Ruins in Chinguetti, Mauritania (photo: Marc Engelhardt)
Texts of great cultural significance are held in private collections in Chinguetti. Unesco and the Mauritanian government have been trying to preserve this heritage, with little success

​​The history of the caravan city of Chinguetti stretches back more than 700 years. Even today, men wrapped in white caftans drive herds of camels out of their corrals each night into the sand dunes before the sun rises. The city is located in the northeast of the desert state of Mauritania, in the middle of the Sahara, and, like the rest of the country, now has mobile phones and cars, which drive along the usually dry wadis. Otherwise, the city is still steeped in tradition.

The first caravans came to Chinguetti from Arabia in the 12th century in search of gold, ivory, and other African treasures. They introduced Islam to the city. Chinguetti is regarded as the "seventh Mecca" and has long been famous for its scribes, who hundreds of years ago composed scholarly works and tracts interpreting the Koran. To this day, religion and trade set the pace of life in Chinguetti.

Incursion of the sand dunes

Every morning, hawkers sit in front of the few stores on the market street in the shadow of the new mosque and sell whatever is available in this barren region – tomatoes, glowing yellow fresh dates, or mint soaking in precious water. "It just gets hotter and hotter," says Fatimah, one of the traders, her face veiled in black. Climate scientists have directly linked the increasingly rapid incursion of the sand dunes to the rise in temperatures caused by climate change.

​​While the more elevated newer section of the city has remained immune from the onslaught of the dunes, many houses in the old town beyond the wadi have already been buried. Others have broken apart. Hardly anyone still lives here, in this most historically important part of the city, where the libraries are located.

Saif Islam is one of the librarians, the youngest scion of a family that for centuries has preserved unique books and writings by religious scholars in a private library.

The Koran on Gazelle Skin

On account of the many similar collections held in historic buildings, Chinguetti was declared a Unesco World Heritage Site.

"The house is almost as old as the writings," explained the 59-year-old Islam, opening the antique lock with a key the size of a hand brush and pushing back the heavy wooden door bolt. He similarly opens a second entrance just off the sun drenched inner courtyard. Behind this door, which is not much more than a meter high, is the library.

(photo: Wikipedia Commons)
Inside a Qur'anic Library: as a tourist attraction, the books are a source of income for the private owners

​​The collection of the Achmed Machmud family consists of 1699 books, most of which are Islamic works. Islam knows them all. "This, for example, is the oldest book in the city. It dates back to the 10th century and is the only Koran written on gazelle hide."

Although most of these works are irreplaceable, Islam protects them from dust and termites in simple cardboard containers. A few years ago, the government in far away Nouakchott attempted to permanently preserve the books. It built a library that remains empty to this day.

Buildings overwhelmed by encroaching sand dunes

"They wanted to take away the books from us and store them," says an indignant Islam. Yet, he and other librarians live from the tourists who come to see the books and hear their history.

Islam, who has a talent for entertaining his guests, sometimes even launches into song, reciting a 17th century Arabic poem to keep everyone in a good mood. "This is a private collection and not a public library," insists Islam. Even the plan to capture the books on microfilm has been shelved. That is because no one wants to hand over their collection for more than the duration of the fast month of Ramadan. Many volumes have therefore never been scientifically evaluated.

photo: Marc Engelhardt
The owners are reluctant to give away the books for the purpose of preservation

​​Saif Islam is nevertheless worried about how long his library can still hold out here. He knows about the report by the Unesco World Heritage Committee that was published two years ago. It clearly states, "Antique sites were built for specific microclimates and these are now being threatened as a result of climate change." Buildings are collapsing because heat or heavy rainfall is destroying their foundations.

In Timbuktu in northern Mali, also a Saharan city like Chinguetti, ancient buildings are absolutely overwhelmed by the encroaching sand dunes. Even Saif Islam's library is already encircled by sand.

Marc Engelhardt

© 2007

Translated from the German by John Bergeron

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