The Wisdom of the Sands: For Centuries, Small Family Groups in the Algerian Sahara Have Gathered Remarkable Collections of Ancient Arabic Manuscripts in Their Homes. These Priceless Works Are Now under Serious Threat of Decay, but a European-Led Conservation Project May Yet Save Them

Geographical, September 2003 | Go to article overview

The Wisdom of the Sands: For Centuries, Small Family Groups in the Algerian Sahara Have Gathered Remarkable Collections of Ancient Arabic Manuscripts in Their Homes. These Priceless Works Are Now under Serious Threat of Decay, but a European-Led Conservation Project May Yet Save Them


In the unforgiving climate of the Sahara-scorching by day, freezing by night-the ingenuity of the desert dwellers has no equal. Traditional homes in the Gourara oasis villages are formed from a maze of dark corridors that open into living areas that are surprisingly cool and fresh. But some hold a further surprise ... a Khizanat, or library, crammed with ancient and beautiful texts

Around Timimoun, in the Western Great Erg of the Sahara desert, countless generations of Zenet Berbers have proudly guarded a fragile legacy. Today, within the red-earth homes of the Gourara region, 29 families hold superb collections of historic Arabic texts, some dating back to the language's earliest written origins.

There are more than 12,000 volumes in these libraries, many of them transcribed in exquisite Kufic script--an early form of the Arabic alphabet that dates back to around the eighth century. All of the diverse learning of Middle Eastern antiquity is represented, with scores of Qur'ans, historical and alchemical tracts and works on subjects such as astronomy, medicine, grammar, science and geography.

Wearing the traditional chech (headscarf) and white gandoura (tunic), self-styled custodians such as Ahmed Abdelkabir are aware that their libraries are unique cultural treasures:

"These manuscripts have belonged to my family for centuries. …

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The Wisdom of the Sands: For Centuries, Small Family Groups in the Algerian Sahara Have Gathered Remarkable Collections of Ancient Arabic Manuscripts in Their Homes. These Priceless Works Are Now under Serious Threat of Decay, but a European-Led Conservation Project May Yet Save Them
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