Situated on the bleak Adrar plateau, the city of Chinguetti contains some of the world’s most important Quranic texts amid its simple earthen libraries.
Established around 777 CE, Chinguetti became an important trading outpost on the Timbuktu caravan route to the Mediterranean. At the same time it became a gathering place for Islamic pilgrims on their way to Mecca. With the steady traffic of holy people through the city, a large, stone mosque was built and small libraries were founded to contain the growing number of religious texts left behind. Preserving the tradition of trading and passing down such holy writings, most of the original Chinguetti libraries exist in largely the same state as when they were deposited.
Today there are five such libraries left in Chinguetti containing some 1,300 Quranic manuscripts, as well as civil records including contracts, bills of sale, and legal judgments. The dry desert air and dedication of generations of custodians have helped preserve the fragile parchments, often rolled inside bamboo tubes.
On occasion, the crumbling texts are gingerly inspected by scholars who still visit the site to study Islamic Law. Preservationists have attempted to relocate the collections or set up restoration programs locally, but the libraries’ private owners resist. UNESCO has awarded Chinguetti and other nearby ancient settlements World Heritage status, and efforts are being made to save the city and its libraries from neglect.
Know Before You Go
Mauritania's tourism has dwindled in recent years but once you get to Atar, it's relatively easy to organize the ride to Chingeutti, where there are several tourist lodgings. Your hosts will be able to help you make a visit to the one library, which is commonly visited by tour groups.