October 2016

World’s Oldest Library Opens to the Public

Morocco Ancient LibraryMorocco Ancient Library

Morocco Ancient Library
Shown here is the reading room at the al-Qarawiyyin Library and an ancient edition from the library’s rare books collection (inset, top right).

Imagine having a secret library where you live that is more than 1,000 years old. The city of Fez in the country of Morocco has such a library. Many people knew about it, but only scholars, or people who are experts in the subjects they study, were allowed inside to see the books. Now the library is finally open to the public. What treasures do think visitors might be finding among those rare, ancient books?

Fez’s al-Qarawiyyin (ahl•kah•rah•wee•yihn) Library is the world’s oldest library. Fatima al-Fihri (fah•tuh•mah ahl•fih-hih-ree), the daughter of a rich merchant from Tunisia, founded the library in A.D. 859. She also founded the university connected to the library and a nearby mosque—a place of worship for those who follow Islam.

Unfortunately, the buildings associated with the library had not been well taken care of. Their poor condition began to threaten the books. Among other problems, rainwater poured from the roof of the mosque onto the roof of the library and leaked into the building.

As anyone can tell you, books and water don’t mix well. It fell to Aziza Chaouni (ah•zee•zuh chou•nee) to prevent this disaster. Born in Fez and now living in Canada, Chaouni is the architect hired in 2012 by the Moroccan Ministry of Culture to restore and refurbish the library so that it could be opened to the public.

Chaouni and her team worked for three years on this project. The work involved more than just repairing damage to buildings. Chaouni’s team also needed to repair the mosaics decorating the building. A mosaic is a kind of art made by arranging small tiles into patterns. Other parts of the project included updating the building’s electrical wiring and installing a new plumbing system to prevent water leaks. Chaouni and her team also added a reading room, book stacks, a conference room, a manuscript restoration laboratory, modern security system, and a climate-controlled area for the library’s rare books collection.

One of the library’s most prized possessions is a copy of the Qur’an, the holy book of Islam, from the A.D. 800s. It was written on camel skin in flowing Kufic script, the oldest form of Arabic calligraphy. Other rare works in the collection include a manuscript on Islamic legal theory by Ibn Rushd (ihb•uhn rusht) as well as the oldest known collection of accounts of the life and words of Muhammad, the prophet who founded the religion of Islam.

Librarians are hard at work digitizing the nearly 4,000 volumes in the library’s collection. So far, about one fifth of the collection is now available in electronic form. The most important news for the people of Fez, however, is that the once mysterious and private al-Qarawiyyin Library is now open for everyone to enjoy.

Image credit—main photo and inset: ©Samia Errazouki/AP Images
Question 1
When did Fatima al-Fihri found the al-Qarawiyyin Library?

Question 2
What did Aziza Chaouni add to the library that wasn't part of it before?

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