In a remote desert region of Mauritania, one of Islam’s holiest cities, Chinguetti, is home to families guarding thousands of ancient manuscripts dating back to the 13th century.

They are known as librarians of the desert. Over the last 50 years a changing climate has brought Saharan sands into the heart of the city, gradually consuming entire buildings. The Mauritanian government has made an effort to preserve the priceless texts—including Quranic studies and scientific and legal documents—but for the families of Chinguetti, to surrender their heirlooms is anathema. Once a major draw for tourists, the city is now threatened by Islamist attacks, which has driven most outsiders away. Panos photographer Alfredo Caliz offers a rare look inside the Unesco World Heritage Site. Photographs by Alfredo Caliz/PANOS

  1. Mohamed Ould Ghoulan, under the watchful gaze of Abdoullah Ould Ghoulan, looks through an ancient manuscript at the Habot Library. They bear the task of protecting this important collection of 1,400 manuscripts. The library was founded in the 19th century when its founder acquired or copied many of the books in the city, a collection subsequently enriched after a trip to Mecca. where he acquired numerous volumes in Eastern Arabic script.
  2. Mohamed Ould Ghoulan, curator of the Habot Library, points to a page in an ancient manuscript on astronomy that describes the position and orbit of the planets. The paper came from China, and the black ink was produced from coal, the yellow from gold, reds from stone, and green from leaves..
  3. An ancient manuscript on astronomy from the Habot collection. The open page shows and explains the various phases of the moon.
  4. Two women walking through Chinguetti, which was founded in the 13th century a few kilometers from the original settlement of Aber, which was buried by the advancing desert.
  5. The Great Friday Mosque of Chinguetti, built between the 13th and 14th centuries and restored in 1970. The minaret is the original built in the style of Malikite Islam and is the second-oldest in constant use in the world today.
  6. Ahmed Saleh, curator of the Moulaye Cherif Ahmed Ould Mhamed library, rummages among the manuscripts on a shelf. This 18th century house stores around 1,350 volumes produced between the 13th and 20th centuries concerning the Islamic presence in Andalusia, the Maghreb, and the Middle East.
  7. Hammed Ahmed Mohamed Cheikh, imam of the Ouadane mosque, leafing through one of his manuscripts under the watchful eye of Barakala, a local guide. For centuries, school children have used this collection to learn Arabic and the basics of their religion.
  8. Seif Islam, curator of the Mahmoud Ahmed library. Its collection features a Koran written on gazelle skin in the 10th century and a history of the prophet from the 13th century.

    Photographer: Alfredo Caliz/PANOS

  9. One of the walls of the Sidi Ould Abidine Sidi family museum decorated with local artifacts.
  10. A car drives through an unpaved road linking the old town of Chinguetti with the new city, built in the era of French colonization. Chinguetti is situated near the end of one of the few paved roads that radiate out of the Mauritanian capital Nouakchott.


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