Ancient Egyptians believed the Sahara to be the Land of the Dead, and the sunset side of the desert was where one’s soul would find its final dwelling for the afterlife. It is no coincidence that the Valley of the Kings and the Old Kingdom Pyramids are on the western side of the Nile…
They were not completely wrong, those ancient Egyptians, as the endless, sun-roasted dunes and deceptive sands and mountains, born out of our planet’s slow digestive processes, are almost as hostile to any form of life as you might imagine mercury to be. “The desert rules you, you don’t rule the desert0 goes an old saying. That’s a saying of a tribe that, perhaps against all odds, did make the Land of Thirst their home, after all.
Those people certainly did not rule the desert, but they managed to adapt and survive. And so, hundreds of years ago, far across the Sahara, where the sky has “the pinkish colour of a leopard’s gums”, it was no Land of the Dead – there, the desert teemed with life.
United by Islam and benefitting from the common language, Arabic, the Saharan states and kingdoms engaged in an early exercise of globalisation. From oasis to oasis, enormous caravans would travel vast distances from Marrakesh and Fez to Timbuktu and back, transporting gold, slaves, salt, and spices. Then, here and there, towns would emerge, accommodating and catering for the needs of the tradesmen.
Scorched by the sun, whipped by the wind, and strangled by the sand, some of those dry towns made of rough stone would nevertheless become centres of learning, attracting those who sought knowledge from the Maghreb and beyond – so that even the legendary Ibn Battuta travelled here once, before setting off for China.
That lasted for centuries, but not forever. The Sahara has now once again returned to being almost empty and quiet. But although there are no more grand caravans, and the countries in the region no longer excell in the realms of knowledge, tiny little gems of that era still remain, the subtle traces of what used to be, and which will never return.
One of those traces is the desert town of Chinguetti in Mauritania, protected by jagged mountains on one side and unbounded, pale gold plateaux on the other, inconspicuous amidst the cruel trickery of deceiving mirages and illusions on the horizon. When your tired eyes first see it, you notice right away how distinctly medieval is the atmosphere that Chinguetti exudes. How it is that it still stands after so many centuries, surrounded by nothing but endless wasteland of petrified seas at worst and occasional anaesthetised nature at best, is hard to understand.
Follow through a labyrinth of sandy old streets, and you might find a tiny wooden door, a discreet opening in a stone wall. Then, you could be just a step away from one of the dusty, ancient libraries of this former great centre of Islamic scholarship, guarded by its librarian, sat there quietly, awaiting those who, like you, seek knowledge. So, push open the door, and enter.
It seemed like he’d always been there, and always would be, until the end of time. He carefully showed us ancient, leather-bound volumes, elegant books, booklets, and vellums. Faint smell of old paper or parchments was in the air when his gloved hands showed us notes jotted in red ink on the sides of one of the books, and reports of rich caravans coming into town, with tens of thousands of camels every day. Centuries ago, people from all over the Islamic world travelled to this and other Chinguetti libraries to learn – and learn for free at that, because owning a library was a symbol of high status and not a source of income. All we had to do was to close our eyes, and then we would hear the bustling streets outside, the shouting of people, the growling of camels, and the laughter of children, as well as the conversations of the learned, and the wailing of the muezzin from afar. But then we’d open your eyes and hear nothing but silence. Just like for Timbuktu – the next stop for many of those caravans – the days of glory are now long gone, and almost no one visits the libraries any more.
As the librarian looked at us smiling, I noticed this peculiar dignity to him, and I immediately liked him. I think he liked us too, and was proud and happy to share his treasure with us. There was something sad and nostalgic about him as well, as if he didn’t know that no one was coming to his library, as if he hadn’t quite yet realised or hadn’t been told that the world had moved on, and there was no going back.
And we didn’t tell him either. We shook hands, bid farewell, quietly closed the door, and left him to his humble destiny in his dusty old library, lost somewhere in the desert between sand and stars, smiling and content.
Editor’s Note: MichaÅ‚ Huniewicz is a Polish photographer, writer and software developer based in London. His shots have been widely featured and exhibited, including in Hong Kong or Brussels, as well as Wyborcza.pl (largest Polish liberal daily). Discovery Digital Networks recently dedicated a show to his trip to Mauritania. To stay up to date with his outstanding adventures and photography, please also visit his website http://www.m1key.me. I completely fell in love with his works.
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