Thousands of ancient manuscripts that have survived centuries in the heart of the Mauritanian desert in northwest Africa will be digitalized and preserved, the Spanish Agency for International Cooperation and Development (AECID) told EFE Wednesday.

The AECID-funded project, which has a budget of 80,000 euros ($85,200) and will finish in April 2018, will allow the rescue of some of the roughly 5,000 manuscripts that have survived from erosion by the wind, sun and humidity of Chinguetti, in the heart of Mauritania.

The medieval trading centre is one of four Mauritanian sites included on the lists of the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization's World Heritage sites, but today it is only a shadow of what it used to be.

Founded in 776 AD, Chinguetti is located in the midst of massive sand dunes that threaten to swallow the historic city, which is situated 516 kilometers (320 miles) east of the capital Nouakchott.

The city has been named in the past as "the Mauritanian Mecca", "the seventh holy city of Islam" and "the city of libraries."

Its glorious past is clear in its emblematic stone mosque, which is still open, but sand has covered most of the old city and large parts of it is has been abandoned.

The project of preserving thousands of the city's manuscripts will be jointly managed by various bodies, including the Chinguetti City Council.

In the first phase, the project seeks to digitalize as many of the 5,000 manuscripts that are distributed in 16 libraries in Chinguetti, Ines Diego Zapata, head of programs in the AECID Mauritanian office told EFE.

She added that thousands of other manuscripts will go through the same process in the future.

The effects of time, uncontrolled selling by treasure hunters and the lack of conservation has led to the disappearance of countless ancient documents.

However, thousands are still guarded in the libraries of families who have always been aware of the value of what they possess.

Some manuscripts date back to the 9th century and were written on gazelle skin and then bound in goat skin (the two most common animals in the region).

The documents deal with diverse topics, including the Quran, astronomy, literature, poetry and medicine, although religious books are the most abundant.

The cultural affairs officer of the Spanish embassy in Nouakchott, Alejandro Fernandez-Mazarambroz, said that the project to safeguard the manuscripts comes at a time when new touristic possibilities are emerging in the regions of the Mauritanian desert, where security has improved in recent years.

European tourism was relatively buoyant at the turn of the century in the caravan towns of Mauritania (Chinguetti, Oualata and Ouadane), where travelers came in search of an adventure in the desert, but the terror attacks in 2007 throughout the country and the kidnapping of three Spanish tourists in 2009 damaged tourism in the Arab country.

By Maarouf uld Daa