The seventh holiest city of Islam, Chinguetti used to be the most venerated town in Mauritania.
On one of the major caravan routes, it was a centre of learning and a place of assembly for pilgrims travelling
to Mecca .. in those glorious times it had 11 mosques and 20,000 inhabitants.
Today it is separated into two towns, the old and the new, which are separated by a kilometre of sand,
mostly used as a football pitch. The new town isn't particularly new or very attractive, its main claim to fame being an ex Foreign Legion fortress, which was featured in the 1984 French film Fort Sagane and is now a hotel. But
the old town is spectacularly old, with many of its buildings dating back to the 11th century and is home to five ancient Koranic libraries containing thousands of very precious manuscripts, lovingly cared for and protected by
family groups of long-serving guardians.
The old town is now a UNESCO World Heritage site and at first sight seemed only to be a motley collection of ramshackle buildings and
broken walls, slowly being engulfed by the desert sands.
However, on closer inspection, we could see a great deal of work that had and is being done to restore as much of the old
town as possible to its former architectural glory, whilst also providing some essential modern amenities for the present residents. These long term projects of restoration and preservation are funded by various international
bodies, the most noticeable of which were an enormous water tower and evidence of a considerable amount of sand clearance to expose ancient streets and buildings, funded by the European Union.
The most practical, as far
as one of the libraries we visited was concerned, was a donation from the German government of hundreds of new box files in which many of the ancient manuscripts were being stored, prior to being painstakingly catalogued.