Two Women, and the Oldest known Library in the World
In March 2016 it was announced that the al-Qarawiyin Library in Fez, Morocco, the oldest working library in the world, founded ed 859 CE, around the time early forms of algebra were being invented just to lend some perspective, would re-open after restoration. The library was founded by Fatima Muhammad Al-Fihri Al-Quraysh, the daughter of a rich immigrant from al-Qayrawan (Tunisia today). Well educated and devout, she vowed to spend her entire inheritance on building a mosque and knowledge center for her community. Fittingly, El-Fihriya attended the university she helped to found. The library still has her original diploma: a wooden board.
The medina, or old city, of Fez, Morocco, is the kind of place a visitor never forgets. A well-preserved medieval metropolis that is pedestrian-only, it’s easy to become lost in streets that get narrower and narrower as you turn off the main thoroughfares—until you’re in a tiny passageway whose walls you can touch on either side with outstretched hands. Weavers, coppersmiths, and potters toil in small shops, using methods similar to generations before them.
"The al-Qarawiyyin Library was created by a woman, challenging commonly held assumptions about the contribution of women in Muslim civilization.”
This 14th century library that grew from a 9th century mosque and university which still includes a mosque, library, and university, played a leading role in the transfer of knowledge between Muslims and Europeans and was once the “soul of the city” according to Aziza Chaouni, a woman who would restore this gem, and open it to the public. Over time, however, it became something of a closed book, open only to scholars. Now, thanks to a government initiative and a restoration led by Chaouni, one of the world’s oldest libraries is accessible to both tourists and locals alike.
Al-Qarawiyyin is home to approximately 4,000 manuscripts, NPR reports. There are 9th-century Qurans written in Kufic calligraphy and the oldest known accounts of the life of the prophet Muhammed. The interior is a stunning combination of intricate mosaics and stark white archways.
Today, thanks to Aziza Chaouni's four-year renovation, the al-Qarawiyyin library features restored fountains and delicately rehabilitated texts, many of them original religious works.
All this makes it easy to think of Fez as a city where “time has stood still,” a place not where contemporary people live contemporary lives, but an unchanging representation of history. This problem was in the mind of the Fez-born architect Aziza Chaouni when the Moroccan government asked her to restore the city’s al-Qarawiyyin Library, thought to be the oldest library in the world. Chaouni envisioned making the renovated structure a place where past and present meet, whereas government officials were keen to keep it static and sequestered from the public.The complex that houses the al-Qarawiyyin Mosque and Library has served as the symbolic center of Fez’s medina since it was founded by Fatima al-Fihri in 859. (The al-Qarawiyyin University was also part of the complex; it moved to the outskirts of Fez after Morocco’s independence from France in 1956.)
Chaouni confronted an enormous task. The library had seen few visitors in recent decades—only students and researchers could gain access—and had fallen into severe disrepair. Its incredible collection of more than 4,000 historic tomes, including a 9th-century Quran written on camel skin in Kufic, the oldest calligraphic Arabic script, was in danger of disintegrating. Chaouni’s team even found a branch of the Fez River running underneath the library’s floors.
The French had undertaken restoration on the library in the 1940s, and some cosmetic renovations had been completed in 2004. “The internal organs needed work,” Chaouni tells CityLab. “You can put makeup on someone who is very ill, and they’ll look good for a few hours, but on the inside they’re still very sick, so it won’t last.”
Chaouni constructed an underground canal to divert the river. She repaired a blocked drainage system, broken tiles, exposed electrical wires, and a myriad of other structural issues. She also added solar panels, air conditioning, and a lab to preserve and digitize some of the oldest manuscripts.Obtaining the Moroccan government’s permission to grant the larger population access to the library was Chaouni’s most difficult task. She disliked the idea of renovating the building only for it to become like its city is often seen—as a “mummy, frozen in time.” She wanted it to be a lively, current place, one where Moroccans and international visitors engage with Fez and its celebrated tradition of knowledge.
Chaouni lobbied vigorously until the government relented. As a result, features such as exhibits and a café will also be on offer when the library opens to the public before the end of the year. Along the way, Chaouni often thought she would lose this battle. Even today, she says, “I’ll only sleep soundly when we have the official opening and I see people using it.”Located in Fez, Morocco, the al-Qarawiyyin library is part of the world's oldest continually operating university, al-Qarawiyyin University, which opened in 859. The library got several small additions and renovations over its millennium-long existence, but it wasn't until 2012 that Canadian-Moroccan architect Aziza Chaouni decided to give it a total face lift.
To show off al-Qarawiyyin's new appearance, the university has opened the space, which had previously been reserved for academics and theologians, to the general public.