Morocco’s Al-Qarawiyyin library to reopen after major restoration

Sunday 01/05/2016
The curator of the Al-Qarawiyyin library, Abdelfattah
Bougchouf, opens an original version of Ibn Khaldoun’s most famous work, Muqadimah, dating to the 14th century at the
Al-Qarawiyyin mosque in Fez, Morocco.

Casablanca - After three years of res­toration, Morocco’s Al- Qarawiyyin library, one of the oldest libraries in the world, is to reopen to the public in May after a period in which researchers are granted ac­cess.

Al-Qarawiyyin library, built in 859 in Fez during the reign of Sul­tan Abou Inane Al Marini, contains priceless treasures. Its 12-century-old manuscripts have been sources of knowledge for researchers and students around the world.

The beautiful Arab-Andalusian-style library was built thanks to Fatima al-Fihriya, the daughter of a wealthy Tunisian merchant who emigrated to Fez and provided the endowment. The woman vowed to devote her inheritance to the con­struction of a mosque and a library for the community. After her par­ents’ deaths, she kept her word. She fasted every day while the construc­tion work was taking place as a way of getting divine blessings.

The library is a historic witness to women’s contribution to Islamic civilisation. In the tenth century the mosque became a university, which is the oldest operational educational institution in the world, according to the UN cultural agency, UNESCO.

Heat and humidity took a toll on Al-Qarawiyyin, which had played a key role in the transfer of knowledge between Muslims and Europeans in the Middle Ages.

“When I first visited, I was shocked at the state of the place. In rooms containing precious manu­scripts dating back to the seventh century, the temperature and mois­ture were uncontrolled and there were cracks in the ceiling,” said Azi­za Chaouni, the architect in charge of rehabilitating the library, on the website of the TED foundation.

In 2012, after receiving a grant from Kuwait’s Arab Bank, Morocco’s Ministry of Culture decided to reno­vate the building following King Mo­hammed VI’s directives.

Priceless manuscripts and parch­ments covering fields such as gram­mar, theology, law and astronomy are now kept in a secure room with strict temperature and humidity control after a plumbing problem threatened to soak them in sewage.

The library had been rehabili­tated on many occasions through the years. However, before the 2012 project began, it still suffered from “major structural problems, a lack of insulation and infrastructural de­ficiencies, such a blocked drainage system, broken tiles, cracked wood beams, exposed electric wires, and so on,” Chaouni told TED.

After three years of renovation, the library is to reopen to the public and provide access to its resources of knowledge and history. The li­brary will house a document resto­ration laboratory, a reading room, a rare book collection, a conference room and a café.

The Louvre Museum in Paris had an exhibition in 2014 called Medi­eval Morocco featuring the North African country’s medieval religious items and manuscripts, includ­ing Ibn Khaldoun’s Muqadimah. A 13th-century chandelier, weigh­ing more than 1 tonne and made of engraved copper with 520 glass lamps arranged in nine circles, from the prayer room of Al-Qarawiyyin mosque was one of the exhibit’s highlights.