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World’s Oldest Continuously Operating Library Begins a New Chapter

Established in 859 CE, Morocco’s al-Qarawiyyin Library will soon reopen to the public with architectural details for the 21st century.

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The al-Qarawiyyin Library (all photos courtesy Aziza Chaouni)

Home to stacks of ancient Islamic manuscripts and intricately decorated reading rooms, the world’s oldest continuously operating library will soon reopen — and, for the first time since its founding in 859 CE, to the public. The al-Qarawiyyin Library, located in the UNESCO World Heritage Medina of Fez in Morocco, has just completed over three years of heavy restoration by Canadian-Moroccan architect Aziza Chaouni and her design firm Aziza Chaouni Projects. Established as part of the University of al-Qarawiyyin, the library for centuries was open only to students, but when it reopens — likely sometime next year — anyone will be able to enter the airy rooms with intricate mosaics and latticework and enjoy its fountain-filled courtyards.

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The al-Qarawiyyin Library

Besides its structural grandeur, al-Qarawiyyin also has exceptional origins: it arose thanks to a woman, Fatima a-Fihri, who used her inheritance from her wealthy merchant father to create this center of knowledge, realized by master craftsmen. a-Fihri had first established a mosque that expanded to include a university building, with the place of worship also serving as a companion learning center — similar to how medieval monastic schools functioned in Europe. The university-mosque complex attracted an influx of foreign scholars from as far as Baghdad who studied or taught math, literature, religion, astronomy, medicine, and other subjects. Many wrote books while in Fez and left their writings at the university; the library now holds texts by prominent thinkers such as sociologist Ibun Khaldun and the philosopher Ibn Rushd (also known as Averroes) in addition to rare, centuries-old copies of the Quran.

Seven years after Morocco gained independence in 1956, the University of al-Qarawiyyin officially entered the state’s developing university system; it moved outside of the medina, and the old library gradually witnessed less and less traffic.

“The new university had its own library with its own books,” Chaouni told Hyperallergic. “Slowly the books in the library [at Fez] became outdated, so only scholars and students who wanted specific books visited.” Her own great-grandfather had attended the University in the 1920s, but she never had access to the library prior to her first visit in 2012, the year a woman from the Moroccan Ministry of Culture asked her to take on its restoration.

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The al-Qarawiyyin Library
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The al-Qarawiyyin Library

The library underwent renovations in the 1940s under French direction, and again in 2004, Chaouni said, but most of the latter work consisted of surface renovations. Since no architectural plans existed, her team had to remove all the wall coverings to discover the full extent of the damage. The library had no proper drainage system, which meant rainwater leaked into the space, cracking floors and walls decorated with centuries-old mosaics; wooden beams had splintered; and the electrical systems needed updates.

“The big question was, how do we integrate [renovations] in a way that fits with the style?” Chaouni told Hyperallergic. “My approach was to use only local craftsmen and materials but to avoid things that would just copy the old style and make it contemporary. … I really believe that a heritage architecture and monument has to be alive. You cannot just fix it.”

In the main reading room, which boasts ceilings four stories tall and decorated with wood and plaster carvings, her firm has installed cost- and energy-efficient temperature systems to properly moderate the massive space. Old wooden screens with latticework now help to hide the modern heaters and air conditioning units. Although the reading rooms do welcome plenty of natural light, Chaouni said, she has installed additional light fixtures — also cleverly camouflaged — and hung new, 400-pound chandeliers that are similar to the destroyed originals but designed to optimize lighting. In the courtyard, umbrellas custom-made by local craftsmen provide additional areas of shade, each equipped with a solar-powered, water vapor system that sprays mist at visitors in need of cooling during hot days. And a new rainwater collecting system for garden irrigation is yet another sustainability-oriented feature of this library of the 21st century.

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The al-Qarawiyyin Library
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The al-Qarawiyyin Library

The newly restored reading rooms, stacks, rare manuscript rooms, and administrative offices occupy two of the library’s three courtyard buildings; the third now houses a new exhibition space and cafe. The space’s curator, Abdelfattah Bougchouf, has been working to select a number of manuscripts to highlight and display in its inaugural show. When the library reopens once more, only cardholders will be able to enter the stacks and, by request, visit the room of rare manuscripts, but everyone will have access to the exhibition room and cafe, which also showcase the complex’s stunning architecture. Chaouni views the historic open access as a momentous result of the restoration, but it’s an accomplishment especially sweet as it was led by a woman — standing as a distant echo of a-Fihri’s own leadership.

“In Morocco, I still feel it’s so hard to be a woman,” Chaouni said. “We often get dismissed and get told to take care of our children. I’ve been told to just do interior design. From what I know, I’m probably the only woman doing restoration work in the Medina of Fez, so it really means a lot that I have the chance and the opportunity to restore the library.”

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Doorts at the al-Qarawiyyin Library
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The courtyard at the al-Qarawiyyin Library
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