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One of the biggest surprises on my marathon drive through southern Morocco was a priceless Quranic library, tucked away at the back of Tamegroute, a tiny town on the edge of the Sahara. Sounds contradictory, and it felt it. As a sandstorm swirled, led by a guide, I picked my way through the labyrinth of rammed earth streets to its newly built heart. This, recently funded by the King, has sprung up around the revered 16th century tomb of a Sufi saint (pic below) – and includes a merdersa (Islamic school) and the precious library.

With 4,000 manuscripts remaining of an estimated 50,000 (the rest either lost or dispersed to museums and libraries throughout Morocco), Tamegroute‘s intellectual, religious and historical heritage is clearly that of a sibling of Timbuktu, that fabled outpost of remoteness which so recently escaped destruction at the hands of extremists. Luckily, Timbuktu’s wily guardians smuggled their most precious manuscripts out (some hidden in sacks of rice) from under the noses of the occupying Islamists, but here in Tamegroute it feels like there has been an inexorable dribble of loss, forgotten by the world.

Tamegroute’s status as a zawiya (Islamic centre of learning) is immense, as only 20 remain in Morocco and it once headed the Naciri sect that held sway for centuries over southern Morocco. Locals need to watch out though, as their intellectual treasure is under threat – not from Islamists, but from neglect. The 83-year old curator, said to be a descendant of the saint, is now in a wheelchair leaving a younger man (his son?) to lead the tour for curious visitors (surprisingly quite a few in this sand-blown outpost). His attitude is abrupt, mechanical and steers us towards a tip – so I have to really insist to get explanations of the extraordinary manuscripts displayed. No photos allowed I’m afraid so you’ll have to imagine them.

In the gloomy interior lined with bookcases, only a small selection is displayed in showcases but these are phenomenal – and exquisitely drawn. An ancient map of Alexandria, an illuminated manuscript with wild, bolder calligraphy that turns out to be from Samarkand, an illustrated dictionary of animals, an Arabic grammar book, algebra, a history of Fez, Berber (Amazigh) poetry written in Arabic, a 15th century Egyptian book of astronomy illustrated with signs of the zodiac, planets and our solar system, a book of medecine and, for me, best of all, a stunning Quran written on gazelle-hide in a rhythmic hand from 11th century Cordoba. That really touches me, knowing Cordoba as well as I do, and gives a potent sense of the centuries of cultural exchange across the Mediterranean during Al-Andalus.

Outside Omar, a diminutive, straight-talking guide in a cobalt blue djellaba, steers me through the roofed streets built to combat the desert heat and dust. Berber women dodge out of sight the moment they see my camera, then we reach a wide dirt road with donkeys ‘parked’ down one side. Here we slip through a gap in the mud wall to be propelled into a chaotic whirl of high colour, voices, smells, more dust – aka the weekly souk or market (on Saturdays – in case you’re passing). Oranges, beetroot, squash, curly cucumbers and huge chunks of rock salt vie with live sheep, bleating at their imminent fate. Tall men in djellabas and turbans chat animatedly, some loading donkeys with purchases, others waiting patiently for trade.

I’m back in my element, loving the familiar setting – until I realise that there is not one woman in sight. I query Omar and the answer comes fast. “It’s a holy town”, so women rarely emerge. Virtually the only ones I see are sitting in the shade of the arcaded courtyard outside the revered saint’s tomb, according to Omar all sick and waiting for a miracle cure. What a paradox in the context of such an erudite, ancient culture, and what a man’s world Morocco (and Islam) still is.

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