Africa’s thriving reading culture pre-European colonialism

The five libraries of Mauritania preserve a medieval archive of civic documents and quranic lore

Chinguetti,  a medieval trading center in northern Mauritania, is located on the Bleak Adar plateau and contains important Quranic texts contained in the earthen libraries.

In 777 CE, the city became an important regional trading outpost on the Timbuktu caravan route where traders would call as they headed to the Mediterranean.

Islamic pilgrims would also congregate on their way to the Holy city of Mecca. With increased processions of Islamic pilgrims passing through as they headed for the Hajj, a large stone mosque was constructed and small libraries were embedded to record the growing number of religious text.

The libraries carefully preserved the tradition of passing down, ensuring the holy texts remained in the exact same condition.

Five libraries in Chinguetti

Five of these libraries remain in Chinguetti today. Within their repositories are 1300 Quranic manuscripts and civil recordings that document civil records such as contracts, legal judgments, and bills of sale.

Ancient scripts were rolled up and stored inside bamboo tubes not forgetting the dry desert air that prevented speedy deterioration. Houses in the ancient village are remarkably preserved. The walls are made of stone with tiny windows and doors cut from the acacia tree. 

The ancient test is periodically inspected by scholars visiting the ancient Islamic site to study law. Preservationists have attempted to relocate the documents or have them restored but the private library owners refuse.

Chinguetti and the surrounding ancient environs have been given the World Heritage status, prompting a raft of measures to have the libraries restored from neglect. 

Chinguetti is familiar with visitors and even has several tourist lodgings. From one of these lodgings, it is easy to organize a guided tour party. Tourism in Mauritania has dropped significantly over the years, sometimes prompted by the fragile security situation of the West African region. 

Sometimes perceptions tend to believe that ancient Africa with no writing tradition. Collections of ancient manuscripts were discovered dating back 8AD.

Today over 250,000 worth of ancient texts still exist in Ethiopia. This includes thousands of documents from the medieval Sudanese empire of Makuria which were written in eight different languages unearthed in Southern Egypt at Qasr Ibrim.

The scripts have survived the ancient cities of Oudane, Agadez, Chinguetti, Kano, and Walata. 

Back in 1950, there were 30 privately owned desert libraries accessible to the public. After a hard-hitting drought, most of the libraries were razed down.

It’s really sad how only five remain today. Within the five remaining libraries are 1300 ancient Quranic manuscripts that are in danger from the ever-expanding Sahara. Exposure to dry air and fast-moving sands have promoted preservationists to try to preserve the books.

Unfortunately, most owners have refused to relinquish their ownership of those texts and will continue the tradition of handing them down. Not far from Chinguetti is Timbuktu which lies on the ancient caravan trail with a rich collection of ancient manuscripts too. 

Rich literary history in Timbuktu

Over a million pages worth of literary pages have survived despite exposure to floods, fire, pillaging, or insects. According to National Geographic, over 700,000 manuscripts have survived in Timbuktu. Most of those surviving libraries are owned by institutions or local families.

The Ahmed Baba institute founded in 1970 has stored a significant number. Ahmed Baba was a 16 to 17 Century scholar who is regarded as one of Africa’s greatest. 70 of the ancient Arabic texts can be attributed to Ahmed. He was deported to Morrocco right after the Morrocans invaded Songhay in 1951. The sultan ordered his deportation after he complained that the troops stole 1600 of their books. 

Today the institution hosts over 30,000 manuscripts that are under study. Unfortunately, the French colonization of Timbuktu saw most of these texts torched by the invaders, resulting in most families opting to remain with their publications for fear of publication.

Manuscripts range from short texts to fragments of treaties. Here are the 4 types the surprised:

  • Key texts of koran/Hindu and Islam
  • Literary work of Malili Islamic; are school
  • Text representative on Islamic sciences
  • Original work related to the region. 

Ph: Eric Valenne geostory /

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Address Chinguetti, Mauritania

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Africa’s thriving reading culture pre-European colonialism

Chinguetti, Mauritania