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The al-Qarawiyyin library in Fez, Morocco

How the World’s Oldest Library was Restored


The al-Qarawiyyin in Fez, Morocco, recovered all of its splendor and re-opens its doors to the public in 2016.

This year, the oldest library in Africa will re-open to the public. And it’s not only the world’s oldest operating library, but also one of the most beautiful of its kind. In Fez, Morocco, the al-Qarawiyyin was founded in 859 and contains manuscripts up to 12 centuries old. And though it never stopped receiving visitors, the buildings had fallen into such disrepair that in 2012 the Moroccan Ministry of Culture asked the architect and TED Fellow Aziza Chaouni to rehabilitate the library for the general public.

This story has two big surprises. The first is that al-Qarawiyyin was built by a woman, which challenges the common assumptions about women’s contributions to Muslim civilization. The second is that the restoration of the library was enormously successful. The result is true beauty.

Exterior of the al-Qarawiyyin in Fez, Morocco

The al-Qarawiyyin, which includes a mosque, a library and a university was founded by Fatima Al-Fihri, the daughter of a rich merchant in al-Qayrawan, which is today’s Tunisia. The resulting library, according to UNESCO, welcomed high profile students. Among them the mystic poet and philosopher, Ibn Al-Arabi, in the twelfth century, and historian and economist, Ibn Khaldun, in the fourteenth century. In the Middle Ages the library played an important role in the transmission of knowledge between Muslims and Europeans.

Courtyard of the al-Qarawiyyin in Fez, Morocco.

Turning to the architecture, the library consists of several buildings interconnected by bridges. Each bridge was placed at a different level on the side of the mountain. Between them are courtyards with fountains and inside are reading rooms, a conference room, a laboratory for the restoration of manuscripts, administrative offices and a cafeteria. Chaouni’s challenge was to find similar materials to replace broken or missing pieces of mosaics, and to clean the plaster reliefs without breaking them. But in the process he found several surprises:

One of the startling aspects about restoring a building this old is that you never know what’s behind a wall. You could scrap it and find a painting, take out the painting and find a door — and so on. We discovered some unexpected things, especially underground, such as a centuries-old sewage system.

Interior arches of the al-Qarawiyyin library

As of May 2016, the public can again walk through the beautiful complex that not only retains the past, intact, but which serves modern needs with databases and sustainable technologies such as solar panels and water collection for irrigation. Chaouni Aziza’s work, which lasted more than four years, is invaluable for the preservation of Muslim culture and, of course, the world’s culture, aesthetics and knowledge, too.

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