The story so far…
In Part 1, we covered our arrival to Mauritania and our trek out to see the Shipwrecks of Nouadhibou.
In Part 2, we visited Atar, and the giant rock Ben Amira.
In Part 3, I went on a difficult camel trek into the Sahara Desert.
Now onto the 4th, and final, part of our adventures in Mauritania – The Ancient Desert Library in Chinguetti.
Quick Facts About Chinguetti and the Ancient Libraries
The old quarter and ancient libraries will transport you back in time for a glimpse of the Old World. Chinguetti is also a good base for camel treks, and if you’re venturing deeper into the Adrar region, seeking out oases and the Blue Eye of the Sahara (the Richat Structure).
From a strictly conservationist standpoint, no. It would be ideal if the books were kept in a climate controlled environment that would prevent degradation of the inks and paper. But protection comes in different forms and the families that are the keepers of these libraries have been unsatisfied with the offers from conservation organizations that wish to remove the ancient texts from their origins.
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A Brief History
In the past, Chinguetti was not only a major trading post in the Sahara Desert, but a major stop on the pilgrimage path to Mecca. It is also considered the seventh holiest Muslim city in the world.
There are 5 ancient libraries in Chinguetti, but only one or two that regularly open to the public to give tours. There are thousands of books in the care of the families that built these desert libraries so long ago. Most of them are religious, but many cover subjects like astronomy and mathematics. Muslim scholars from every field are represented here.
Conservationists are concerned because the sands of the Sahara are slowly swallowing Chinguetti and the books are not necessarily being kept in optimal conditions in these private libraries, but organizations like UNESCO and various museums have also failed to come up with terms the library owners can be content with. Thus, the collections remain private and in Chinguetti.
The Ancient Desert Library
Difficulty Rating: 5
Easy for an average fit person.
Some challenge for less-than-fit or impaired people.
After driving through Old Town Chinguetti with its low, sandy brick buildings and basic roads, we come to one with a narrow, sloped alley beside it that leads to a courtyard with several ancient-looking doors.
The alley is filled with deep sand which I only mention because at this point, Tim is still switching between a walker and dual canes to manage his broken leg. This sandy situation is ideal for neither. There are a dozen locals in this alley, some selling jewelry and other items, some just hanging out.
We make our way down to the courtyard while our guide summons the curator of the Ancient Library, Seif al Islam (alternate spelling to what’s in the video). Not knowing which door leads to the library, I leave Tim waiting near the doors, with a wall to lean against while I go take pictures. While it was late in the afternoon, it was still 93⁰F (34⁰C) and it didn’t take long before we were getting toasty.
When the curator arrives, we discover that none of those doors led to the Library. The entry was actually back in that shaded, sandy alley area. It would have been nice if someone had told us that. Though maybe they tried, and we just didn’t understand.
So we get Tim back up the incline, through the deep sand, only to find that the entrance to the library has a steep set of uneven stone stairs. It was suggested that Tim remain outside, that it would be too hard on his leg. But I saw the dejection on his face. There were already enough events that he’d missed because of his leg and I could tell he didn’t want this to be another one.
So I told them he would be doing it. At that point, everyone shifted into help-mode. If he wanted to go in, they would help him get in.
Up the stairs into the dark, low overhang – don’t hit your head – and, of course, stairs back down again.
And he made it! Partially blind and nursing a broken leg, he made it.
We sat on the stone facing an intimate and ancient courtyard. The curator makes introductions and explains that he can do the presentation in French or Arabic. This is when we meet Dominique, a fellow traveler and really nice guy, who also ended up being our translator.
You can see in the video above, the first part of the wonderful presentation by Seif al Islam, and some of the books he showed us.
It was a wonderful afternoon – until Tim’s blood sugar started to drop.
Medical Emergency in the Middle of Nowhere
Normally, Tim having a blood sugar drop is easily handled. He drinks a soda, or any sweet drink and eats a pack of Mentos and he’s fine. This turned out to be more serious.
Let me explain.
First, for those who don’t know, Tim has been a Type 1 diabetic since he was 18 months old. He’s had it since testing blood sugar required a mini chemistry kit.
This sugar drop happened fast for an unforeseen combination of reasons.
When we entered the Library, Tim was fine. The presentation wasn’t more than 30-40 minutes. I was running the video, but when I looked over as it wrapped up, I could see Tim was in bad shape. Admittedly, he put off telling me for a few minutes because he didn’t want to interrupt, but only a few.
We immediately broke out the drink and candy and tested his blood sugar to see where he was. Definitely low.
Lower Than Low
Generally, Tim can tell when he levels out and his blood sugar starts to come back up. That didn’t happen after the first round of sweets. We tested again. Still low. His levels were dropping as fast as we were bringing them up.
At this point we pulled out the second round of emergency supplies and asked for someone to find us some more soda, or candy, or anything. He was dropping hard.
Well, people in Chinguetti don’t keep a lot of sweets around. Also, it was off-season for tourists, so even the places that might have had sodas to sell were out of stock at this point in time.
Everyone pulled together. Someone came up with a jar of jelly, and another person borrowed a little decorative spoon, intended as a souvenir, from one of the vendors outside. Eventually some sodas arrived.
This whole time, I’m getting Tim to shovel it down. He was at that point some diabetics get to where they become resistant to eating, even if that’s what they need. He doesn’t usually do this, but he’d already dumped a lot of sweets into his gut and he was feeling less than comfortable eating more.
But I knew he wasn’t getting back to normal. Some of his speech wasn’t making sense, which had never happened with him as a result of low blood sugar. His other reactions were off, too. At this point, I was starting to fear he’d had a stroke.
Let me just say that Mauritania is not a shining star for medical facilities. I’m not even sure if Chinguetti had a hospital, and if they did, they certainly wouldn’t have been equipped for this.
Eventually, though, after far too many drinks and candy and everything else, he started to come back around. We’d been taking his blood sugar every fifteen minutes and the meter finally showed him to be on the right track.
By this time, the sun was going down, and while getting better, Tim still wasn’t in great shape. And we had to get him back out those difficult stairs that had been so challenging coming in.
We went on his say-so and everyone helped. There were people we hadn’t even seen that came out of the growing darkness to make sure Tim was stable getting back to the car.
We got back to the hotel (auberge) and got him to bed. This episode actually left him fatigued for days. When we got back to Atar, our new friends at Bab Sahara took us to the hospital to get Tim checked out. The facilities were basic, but the doctors were good. They determined that he hadn’t had a stroke and they were actually very happy with his bloodwork numbers.
So What Happened?
How did Tim end up with his blood sugar crashing so hard?
Earlier in the day, his sugar had been running high, so he took a significant insulin shot to bring it down. He might have shot a little too aggressively. Had that been the only factor, the first round of sweets would have handled it.
When Tim took that shot, he didn’t know that going to the library was going to involve all the walking in the sand, and the climb into the Library. Exercise causes blood sugar to drop. It was these combined elements that dropped his sugar so low, so fast.
No matter how careful you are, there are times that things happen with diabetes. It’s a 24/7 disease and you can’t be perfect all of the time. Yes, that’s one of the risks when we’re on the road like this, but Tim refuses to let the disease stop him from living his life.
Who’d have thought this could happen from visiting a library? We didn’t end up using our World Nomads travel insurance this time, but it goes to show that you never know when you’ll need it.
By the way, Tim is doing fine. We got him some rest and his blood sugar under control. He’s a tough one.
Good Visit, Bad Event
Despite the problem with Tim’s blood sugar, we had a wonderful time at the Ancient Library. The curator was funny and charming and full of interesting stories. The Old Town was picturesque, and the people were wonderful.
If you find yourself in Chinguetti, definitely make time in your trip to stop in for a visit.
And don’t forget to check out our Mauritania Photography Portfolio for more great pictures.