A walk through the world’s oldest library in Fez, Morocco

The oldest library in the world was reopened for visitors recently. Founded by a muslim woman more than 12 centuries ago, it underwent extensive renovations also headed up by another woman.

Photo by: AP
Photo by: AP

Books of the Qarawiyyin library reading room are pictured in the Al-Qarawiyyin mosque in Fez, Morocco.

Al-Qarawiyyin library, the oldest working library in the world, has undergone extensive renovations and was recently unveiled to the public in Fez, Morocco.

Until now, the privilege of using the library has been limited to scholars who need to seek formal permission, and authorities haven't decided yet whether to change that.

The University of Al-Qarawiyyin is considered the first university in the world. Originally a mosque, it expanded in the 10th century to become a university, Abdelmajid El-Marzi, imam and administrator of the mosque, told AP.

It was founded by a Muslim woman named Fatima al-Fihiri in the year 859, debunking the myth that muslim women were subjugated.

Al-Fihiri, immigrated with her family from present-day Tunisia in the 9th century establishing themselves in Moroccan society.

A few years later, she lost her father, husband and brother in short succession. She and her sister, therefore, inherited a substantial sum of money. With this money, she built the Qarawiyyin mosque which included the Al-Qarawiyyin university on its grounds. Mariam, her sister, built the Al-Andalusia mosque, with both women dedicating their lives and fortune to the service of the people. 

The courtyard of Al-Qarawiyyin mosque.

Historical records denote that al-Fihri was hands-on during the construction period of the mosque and other reports said she made a religious vow to fast from the first day of its construction to the last. 

A prayer hall of Al-Qarawiyyin mosque.

Al-Qarawiyyin University went on to became an important center for education and one of the first Islamic and most prestigious universities in the world. Alumni included Andalusian scholar, poet and philosopher Ibn al-Arabi in 12th century, North African historian and economist, Ibn Khaldun in the 14th century and Leo Africanus, an author and renowned traveler of the 16th century.

A sundial casts a shadow to display the time of day at the historic Al-Qarawiyyin University in Fez, Morocco, Sunday, Feb. 7, 2016.

In 1963, the university was incorporated into Morocco's modern state university system under the supervision of the ministry of education. A new campus was established in another part of Fez while the mosque and library remained. 

A plank of wood that is said to Fatima al-Fihri's diploma, founder of Al-Qarawiyyin.

Civil engineer and architect, Aziza Chaouni was commissioned in 2012 by the Moroccan Ministry of Culture to rehabilitate the 1,157 year old library which she confesses she didn't know about.

"I knew about the mosque, but never even knew there was a library there," she told AP, despite growing up in the city. 

Curator of the Qarawiyyin library, Abdelfattah Bougchouf, opens an original version of Ibn Khaldun's most famous work, Muqadimmah, dating back to the 14th century at the Al-Qarawiyyin mosque.

The library’s state of disrepair meant that Chaouni faced major challenges in her path. At risk were centuries of knowledge contained in the many ancient manuscripts that were at threat of being lost forever.

“In rooms containing precious manuscripts dating back to the 7th century, the temperature and moisture were uncontrolled, and there were cracks in the ceiling,” Chaouni told Ted.com

“Throughout the years, the library underwent many rehabilitations, but it still suffered from major structural problems, a lack of insulation, and infrastructural deficiencies like a blocked drainage system, broken tiles, cracked wood beams, exposed electric wires, and so on,” she said.

The fountain for ablutions before prayers is pictured in the Al-Qarawiyyin mosque.

As part of the UNESCO World Heritage list, Chaouni took special care to restore the library’s original courtyard fountains as they formed part of the city’s vast and ancient water network. 

Abdelfattah Bougchouf, curator of the Qarawiyyin library, opens the first page of an original version of Ibn Khaldun's most famous work, Muqadimmah, dating back to the 14th century at the Al-Qarawiyyin mosque.

The impressive library boasts more than 4,000 rare books and ancient arabic manuscripts dating back to the 9th century. 

9th century Quran written on leather with Kufic calligraphy at Al-Qarawiyyin library.

However, the oldest and most treasured asset of Al-Qarawiyyin library is a 9th century Quran written on leather with Kufic calligraphy.

Arabic scripts at the time mostly consisted of Kufic calligraphy from the 7th century until the 11th century and is a modified form of the old Nabataean script.

An original manuscript by Ibn Rochd on Maliki jurisprudence written in Andalusian style calligraphy at the al-Qarawiyyin mosque.

Post renovation, the manuscripts are now kept in a secure room, with strict temperature and humidity control. In the past, it was a different story.

"The original manuscript room door had four locks," said Abdelfattah Bougchouf, curator of the Qarawiyyin library. "Each of those keys was kept with four different people. In order to open the manuscript room, all four of those people had to physically be there to open the door."

Now, he chuckled, "all of that has been replaced with a four-digit security code."

The reading room of the Al-Qarawiyyin mosque.

Chaouni is lobbying to open a public exhibition room in the library for the first time.

The Culture Ministry accepted the idea but bureaucratic control over the site shifted to the Ministry of Endowments and Religious Affairs. Chaouni worries that this shift will squash her efforts.

Authorities are also concerned about the cost of keeping the previous manuscripts secure.

To improve access to the manuscripts, the library has began a process of digitizing them. However, only 20 percent of the manuscripts is in electronic form and the work continues. 

TRTWorld and agencies