February 16: Ever heard of Chinguetti, a city nestling deep in the Sahara desert close to the North African country of Mauritania? No? Well, neither did most of the world, till it was discovered that this desert city that is slowly sinking in sand, could be home to the world’s oldest “living” libraries. That is to say a library with intact manuscripts.
Islamic manuscripts dating several centuries and still in mint condition, have been found in the city.
Chinguetti, located on the Adrar plateau 500 km into the Sahara desert, is a ghost town today. But it was once the seventh holiest city in the Islam religion and was venerated by pilgrims who assembled here to travel to Mecca, the holiest of all cities to the Muslims.
A report in The Asian Age newspaper mentions how Chinguetti was a thriving city reputed for its poets and scholars. It boasted around a dozen mosques, and served as the point where caravans of thousands of camels carrying salt, tea, wool and other goods halted, on their way to trade with other regions, across the Sahara.
Chinguetta’s role in the caravan route led to its becoming a thriving urban centre in what is now Mauritania. In the 14th century, the city boasted a population of 40,000 people, which is quite a number in those days.
Local scholars decided that given the city’s holy stature and importance, the people of Chinguetti needed to be able to study Islamic wisdom. And that is why many invaluable Islamic manuscripts found their way into the libraries of the city.
Today, the contrast with the past appears to be striking. It seems as if the whole city is sinking into the sands that surrounds it. Whether it’s the main street, the basements of houses, or the slippers of passers-by, sand seems to have enveloped everything in the city. The caravan traffic no longer plies, long droughts have made the region drier, and only a few thousand people stay on as Chinguetti residents. Most have migrated to flourishing cities.
But the manuscripts have remained miraculously intact. And have revived interest, particularly scholarly, in the desert city that was almost forgotten.