Cultural Heritage Endangered in Mauritania:  The Qur’an on Gazelle Skin

Marc Engelhardt

Posted Jan 21, 2008      •Permalink      • Printer-Friendly Version
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Cultural Heritage Endangered in Mauritania:  The Qur’an on Gazelle Skin

by Marc Engelhardt

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

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 Qur’an. 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.

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 Qur’an 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.

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.

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.


© 2007

Translated from the German by John Bergeron