al-Qarawiyyin Library in Fez, Morocco, is the oldest library in the
world, but until last month, only researchers had access to it. Built in
859, the library was a beacon for scholars, poets, and theologians for
hundreds of years, but in recent years it had fallen into terrible
disrepair. Now a massive, three-year restoration effort hasn’t just
revitalized the building – it’s opened an ancient center of scholarship
up to a new generation of readers!
The center includes the large library, as well as a mosque and a
university that may be the oldest degree-granting institution in the
world. It was founded by Fatima El-Fihriya, a rich merchant’s daughter
who dedicated her inheritance to building the center (a habit that ran
in her family, as her sister, Maryam, was the sponsor of Fez’s Al-Andalus mosque).
After the Moroccan Ministry of Culture received a grant from Kuwait’s
Arab Bank, they chose Canadian-Moroccan architect Aziza Chaouni, who
grew up in Fez, to head the project. Since 2012 she and her team have
corrected structural damage and painstakingly updated mosaics to
preserved the library’s original beauty, while also modernizing the
space with an airy cafe, courtyard umbrellas and misting stations, and a
museum highlighting al-Qarawiyyin’s history.
As the center expanded in the 10th and 11th centuries, new facilities
were added on that ranged over several levels of surrounding hills, so
one of the difficulties of Chaouni’s job was to get each individual
space up to the same standard of insulation and wiring. In addition to
that, she needed to restore centuries-old wooden beams, and the delicate
mosaic tiles called zellige, and faced the additional challenge that
comes with an ancient building, like say when you break through a wall
and find a centuries-old sewage system.
Another challenge was restoring the books themselves, as NPR relates. al-Qarawiyyin houses texts including a 9th-century Quran written in Kufic calligraphy, the original copy of Ibn Khaldun’s 14th Century Muqadimmah, a manuscript on Islamic jurisprudence by Ibn Rochd (known as Averroes
in Europe), and the oldest known collection of Islamic hadith, which
are early accounts of the life and words of the Prophet Muhammed.
The al-Qarawiyyin Library opened to visitors last month, so those of you
who are Morocco-bound, be sure to check it out! And for the rest of us,
you can learn more about the project here and here, and see more images of al-Qarawayyin’s beautiful mosaics here.