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.
. . . .
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.
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.
. . . .
Although there are no more grand caravans, and the countries in the region no longer excel 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.
. . . .
Follow through a labyrinth of sandy old streets, and you might find a tiny wooden door, a discreet opening in a stone wall.
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.
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.
Link to the rest at Metro and thanks to Julia for the tip.