In Fez, world’s oldest library holds gems

Sunday 11/12/2016
A man reads an encyclopaedia about Maliki Muslim doctrine at the al-Qarawiyyin Library in the Moroccan city of Fez, on November 21st. (AFP)

Fez - Nestled in a labyrinth of streets in the heart of Morocco’s ancient city of Fez stands the world’s oldest working library. Its sculpted dark wooden door is almost hidden on the edge of a square where artisans hammer away at copper in a deafening din, delighting passing tourists.

For the few lucky enough to be allowed behind the door, a stair­case tiled with green and blue hints at the written wonders beyond.

As early writings from the Arabic-speaking world have come under increasing threat from extremists, the Qarawiyyin library is home to priceless treatises in Islamic stud­ies, astronomy and medicine.

The Islamic State (ISIS) burned thousands of rare manuscripts at the Mosul library in Iraq and Islam­ists torched countless early writ­ings from the Islamic world and Greece in Mali’s Timbuktu.

The Qarawiyyin library has just emerged from years of restoration, although no date has been fixed for a public opening.

“All that’s left to be done are a few finishing touches and the elec­tricity,” said Boubker Jouane, the library’s deputy director.

“A house of science and wis­dom,” according to its founder Fati­ma al-Fihri, the Qarawiyyin library was one of the Arab world’s larg­est centres of learning. Fihri, the daughter of a wealthy merchant from Al-Qayrawan in Tunisia, es­tablished the library, the univer­sity that originally housed it and a mosque in 859.

Today the university has moved to a new location but the mosque, which shares an emerald-green tile roof with the library, still stands.

The library as it appears today was built in the 14th century un­der sultan Abu Inan and restruc­tured under king Mohammed V, the grandfather of Morocco’s cur­rent monarch. Over the centuries, sultans, noblemen, princesses and wise men have contributed works to its shelves.

Under an imposing ceiling of wooden arabesques and a huge copper chandelier, the main read­ing room sits next to an area that contains 20,000 books.

A short walk — through a corridor of mosaics, past panels of sculpted cedar wood under finely chiselled ceilings — leads to the library’s centrepiece. The manuscript room is hidden behind two heavy metal doors and protected by an alarm system and surveillance cameras. Its wooden window shutters are closed to prevent sunlight from en­tering.

Precious manuscripts are bun­dled in grey-coloured cardboard files and displayed on standard metal shelves.

Works can be consulted while readers sit at one of two chairs next to a simple table — on which sits a green felt cushion em­broidered with gold thread.

Around 3,800 titles are kept here, some of them price­less.

One example is a treatise on medicine by philosopher and phy­sician Ibn Tufayl from the 12th cen­tury.

“From baldness to corns on the foot, all ailments of the body are listed in verse to make them easier to learn,” Jouane said.

The word “diabetes”, which is of Greek origin, already features writ­ten in Arabic script.

Another gem is a hand­written copy of histo­rian and philosopher Ibn Khaldun’s Book of Les­sons. The treatise in his­tory has been signed by the 14th-century thinker himself.

“Praise be to God, what is writ­ten belongs to me,” a line he wrote reads in el­egant handwriting.

Another 12th-century manu­script — a treatise in astronomy by philosopher Al-Farabi — shows the course of the planet Jupiter, com­plete with drawings of astonishing precision.

And then there is a treatise on the Malikite doctrine in Islam written by the grandfather of the Arab phi­losopher Averroes. Its 200 pages of gazelle leather are inscribed with tiny immaculate calligraphy dotted with embellishments in gold ink.

Perhaps surprisingly, one of the “works most in demand”, accord­ing to Jouane, is Christian: A 12th-century copy of the Gospel of Mark in Arabic.

It was translated “in all likeli­hood by a Christian man of letters from Andalusia who had come to Qarawiyyin to learn Arabic”, said Jouane, expressing pride at the “in­credible degree of tolerance at the time”.

The library counted 30,000 manuscripts when it was founded under Abu Inan but many were de­stroyed, stolen or plundered over the years, Jouane said.

“There’s only very little left of what once was but today we care­fully watch over these priceless treasures,” he said.

(Agence France-Presse)