The Book and the Sand: Restoring and Preserving the Ancient Desert Libraries of Mauritania — Part 2


  • Graziano Krätli Yale University


Ever since prehistoric times, the Sahara desert has been a barrier to communication and exchange, as well as a site of trade and habitation. The introduction of the camel, between the second and the fifth centuries A.D., and the spread of Islam to North Africa during the seventh and eighth, significantly increased the volume of trans–Saharan trade, leading to the establishment of a number of commercial outposts along the main caravan routes. In addition to gold, salt and slaves, books and the materials to produce them (paper in particular) were among the top commodities of the trans–Saharan trade, which helped some strategically located trading posts to become important centers of book production and intellectual activity. By the eighteenth century, when the trade reached its heyday, a few caravan towns in Mauritania, namely Ouadane, Chinguetti, Tichitt, and Oualata, had become so renowned throughout the Islamic world for their religious scholars and their libraries, that only the legendary Timbuktu rivaled them in this part of the world. Today, these "desert libraries" are represented by several thousand manuscripts and printed books that document the evolution of Islamic thought in western Africa, while providing important insights in the trans–Saharan book trade. This article describes the origin and evolution of Mauritania’s desert libraries, the attention and interest they generated outside the Islamic world, and the main efforts conducted so far to locate, collect, catalog, restore, and preserve this unique cultural treasure.

Author Biography

Graziano Krätli, Yale University

Graziano Krätli is International Program Support Librarian at Yale University, New Haven, CT, USA.