Saturday, September 18, 2010

Chinguetti the library of the desert (Mauritania)

Chinguetti la bibliothèque du désert Chinguetti (Arabic: شنقيط) is a ksour or ancient trading centre in northern Mauritania, lying on the Adrar Plateau east of Atar. Founded in the 13th century, as the center of several trans-Saharan trade routes, this small threatened city continues to attract visitors who admire its spare architecture, exotic scenery and its ancient libraries.

The old quarter of the Chinguetti is home to five important manuscript libraries of scientific and Qur'anic texts, with many dating from the later Middle Ages. The Chinguetti region has been occupied for thousands of years and once was a broad savannah. Cave paintings in the nearby Amoghar Pass feature pictures of giraffes, cows and people in a green landscape quite different from the starkly beautiful sand dunes of the desert landscape found in the region today.

For centuries Chinguetti was a principal gathering place for pilgrims of the Maghrib to gather on the way to Mecca. It became known as a holy city in its own right, especially for pilgrims unable to make the long journey to the Arab Peninsula. It also became a center of Islamic religious and scientific scholarship in West Africa. In addition to religious training, the schools of Chinguetti taught students rhetoric, law, astronomy, mathematics, and medicine.

For many centuries all of Mauritania was popularly known in the Arab world as Bilad Shinqit, "the land of Chinguetti." Chinguetti is locally said to be the seventh most holy city of Islam. There is no recognition of this claim outside of West Africa, but whatever its ranking, the city remains one of the world's most important historical sites both in terms of the history of Islam and the history of West Africa.

Although largely abandoned to the desert, the city features a series of medieval manuscript libraries without peer in West Africa, and the area around the Rue des Savants was once famous as a gathering place for scholars to debate the finer points of Islamic law. Today its deserted streets continue to reflect the urban and religious architecture of the Moorish empire as it existed in the Middle Ages

The Chinguetti region has been occupied for thousands of years and once was a broad savannah. Cave paintings in the nearby Amoghar Pass feature pictures of giraffes, cows and people in a green landscape quite different from the sand dunes of the desert landscape found in the region today.

The city was originally founded in 777, and by the 11th century had become a trading center for a confederation of Berber tribes known as the Sanhadja Confederation. Soon after settling Chinguetti, the Sanhadja first interacted with and eventually melded with the Almoravids, the founders of the Moorish Empire which stretched from present-day Senegal to Spain. The city's stark unadorned architecture reflects the strict religious beliefs of the Almoravids, who spread the Malikite rite of Sunni Islam throughout the Western Maghrib.

After two centuries of decline, the city was effectively re-founded in the 13th century as a fortified cross-Saharan caravan trading center connecting the Mediterranean with Sub-Saharan Africa. Although the walls of the original fortification disappeared centuries ago, many of the buildings in the old section of the city still date from this period.

Today, along with the cities of Ouadane, Tichitt and Oualata, Chinguetti has been designated as a World Heritage site. The Friday Mosque of Chinguetti, is widely considered by Mauritanians to be the national symbol of the country.

The Great "Friday Mosque" of Chinguetti

Source = Wikipedia

The Ancient Books and Libraries of Tichit, Mauritania

Caravan Leaders and Saharan Scholars
Source = Saudi Aramco Magazine September 2010

Caravans have long been the lifelines of the Sahara. But today, Tichit (in Mauritania) remains largely “landlocked,” without a highway linking it to Mauritania's national road system. Its dwindling population nonetheless relies less on caravans than on the diesel truck that regularly makes its way across the rough terrain from Tijikja, to the east, to replenish the town's supplies and carry out its primary exports: amersal salt and dates.

Throughout history, long-distance trade in Mauritania was a male profession. In Tichit, though, caravanning was not just a man's world. The wealthiest women of Tichit invested in caravan journeys by contracting family members and laborers, or sending slaves; women in the lower classes of society joined caravans themselves, for the most part accompanied by their husbands and children. Those women are remembered by all because of their leading role in planning, coordinating and directing camels, loads, supplies and family labor. This is why the story of Jarfuna, the remarkable woman caravan leader, lives on in the oral traditions of Tichit


Tichit has a long tradition of excellence in Islamic learning and scholarship. As early as the 12th century, several Muslim scholars had settled in Tichit, among them Sharif 'Abd al-Mu'min. Today, there are some 20 large libraries in this Saharan oasis that contain manuscript collections bearing witness to the vibrant scholarly community that once flourished here--including the 800-manuscript library of the family of Limam Ould Abdel Mu'min, who heads the only museum of Tichit.

Lying at the base of a limestone escarpment, accessible only by camels and off-road vehicles, Tichit was once so verdant that archeologists have found evidence of plant domestication going back some 4000 years.

Lying at the base of a limestone escarpment, accessible only by camels and off-road vehicles, Tichit was once so verdant that archeologists have found evidence of plant domestication going back some 4000 years.

In recent years, the Fondation des Villes Anciennes, under the Mauritanian Ministry of Culture, has been working to preserve manuscripts in Ticht and sister oasis towns. In Tichit, some families have taken matters into their own hands by creating the Club pour la Sauvegarde des Manuscrits de Tichit, which is cataloging six family-library collections. Mohamedou Ould El-Sharif Bouya, who directs the club, is a scholar and local historian, a role passed down to him by Daddah Ould Idda, the late custodian of Tichit's history. Much material assistance is needed to secure these Saharan treasures for posterity, he says.

Several Tichit women were known as distinguished scholars, and their stories are recounted in the town's oral traditions. The mosque of Tichit, its façade decorated with the triangular niches typical of the town's stone buildings, has a special entrance for women that is notable for its beauty and size. Today women from all three of Tichit's clans still run primary schools in their homes where they teach the Qur'an and basic Arabic literacy to boys and girls.

In Tichit, it is traditional for both boys and girls to become literate, mostly through education in the chapters (surahs) of the Qur’an.

Historically, many of Tichit's female intellectuals belonged to the Shurfa clan, which traces its lineage to the Prophet Muhammad. Like their male counterparts, they memorized the Qur'an to earn the respectful title of hafidhat, and some of their writings are preserved in the Club pour la Sauvegarde des Manuscrits. The earliest example is A'ishatu mint al-Faqih Abu Bakir ibn al-Amin ibn al-Sha' al-Muslimi, who lived in the 18th century. It is said that she once traded 70 camels for a single manuscript: Ibn Hajjar's collection of hadith, or sayings of the Prophet.

Another example is Al-Hasniya mint Fadil al-Sharif, a 19th-century scholar. She married another scholar with whom she had four sons, all of whom became scholars themselves. When she died, numerous praise songs and poems were written in her honor. Several of them have been published in Dala al-Adib, an anthology of Saharan literature by Jamal Ould Al-Hasan. Fatima mint Shaykhna Buyahmed is the most celebrated of these learned women, partly because she lived in more recent times—from the late 19th through the mid-20th century. The daughter of a legal scholar who taught her Islamic jurisprudence, she so excelled in the study of the law that she occasionally wrote fatwas in the name of her father.

Jarfuna, by contrast, used her limited literacy to run her caravans, but she wasn't the only Masna woman to leave her mark as a businesswoman. Fatimatu mint Seri Niaba, for example, was a gifted 19th-century entrepreneur, as well as a learned individual. Although she did not leave any scholarly writings, Fatimatu, like many women of Tichit, earned her access to the caravan economy thanks to her literacy.

Muslim women protected their property rights by keeping a paper trail of their commercial and civil affairs. They documented credit transactions and loan disbursements, and they wrote to men and other women with whom they conducted trade and exchanged market information. To be sure, only privileged and exceptional women—Fatimatu among them—acquired the skills necessary to make use of contracts and correspondence. Tichit depended on caravans to bring in limited supplies of writing paper, making that commodity relatively expensive. Not everyone could afford to engage directly in the caravanning economy at this level or, alternatively, to hire scribes.

Ornamental leatherwork adorns what will become a usaada, or cushion. In the past, women used the same skills to decorate the leather bindings for manuscripts that are preserved in Tichit’s libraries.

Women were involved in Tichit's scholarly and caravanning activities in other ways, too, by crafting and ornamenting the leather bindings that protected manuscripts. The women of Tichit also made and decorated with colored dyes the cushions and small leather pouches that were among their primary export products. Indeed, there is a firm foundation for the popular Mauritanian proverb, “The woman is the man's trousers” (Limra' sirwal al-rajul), for it conveys the idea that a woman protects her husband and, by extension, their family.

Partial reprint of article in Saudi Aramco World Magazine, September 2010