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Al-Qarawiyyin mosque and university in Fez, Morocco. Photo by Izzet Keribar/Lonely Planet Images/Getty Images

Old library, new look

By Sheima Benembarek

Al-Qarawiyyin, an institution located in Fez, Morocco, is home to the world’s oldest operational library. But the building had not been renovated in centuries, and its vast collection of ancient religious and philosophical texts was at risk of damage from the natural elements. In 2012, Morocco’s Ministry of Culture tasked a Moroccan-Canadian architect with overseeing the library’s restoration. Its reopening to the public is anticipated this year.

A proud history

Founded in AD 859 as a mosque and learning centre, Al-Qarawiyyin grew to include a university and library. Sultans donated money, rare books, important documents and texts from various disciplines. Among the library’s most valuable holdings: Imam Malik’s hadith (records of the Prophet Muhammad’s sayings) written on gazelle sheets; an original copy of the historian Ibn Khaldun’s Kitab Al-Ibar (Book of Lessons); and a ninth-century Qur’an in Kufic calligraphy. Al-Qarawiyyin also became a hub for interfaith learning. Pope Sylvester II (AD c. 946-1003), who is said to have introduced Arabic numbers to Europe, studied at Al-Qarawiyyin.

A man reads an encyclopedia about Maliki Muslim doctrine at the Al-Qarawiyyin library. Photo by Fadel Senna/AFP/Getty Images
A man reads an encyclopedia about Maliki Muslim doctrine at the Al-Qarawiyyin library. Photo by Fadel Senna/AFP/Getty Images

A Canadian architect

Morocco’s Ministry of Culture, equipped with a grant from Kuwait’s Arab Bank, selected Toronto-based architect Aziza Chaouni to restore the library. Chaouni, a native of Fez and an associate professor of architecture at the University of Toronto, was disheartened at the library’s condition upon her first assessment visit in 2012. She told TED.com, “In rooms containing precious manuscripts dating back to the seventh century, the temperature and moisture were uncontrolled, and there were cracks in the ceiling.” The renovation includes a new space where manuscripts are exhibited and a museum where the history of the Al-Qarawiyyin complex is showcased.

Open to the public

Restoring a library that has fostered some of the Muslim world’s most influential thinkers is an achievement for Chaouni and a gift to the Moroccan people. While scholars have always had unrestricted access to the library, it is only after the renovation that it will be open to the public. Says Chaouni, “Both Moroccans and foreign visitors will get to glimpse, for the first time, some of the library’s amazing and unique manuscripts, as well as enjoy its architecture.”   

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