The ancient capital of Morocco holds a precious literary secret. Tucked away in Fez’s old medina quarter, one of humanity’s most important buildings is currently undergoing a rigorous restoration. The al-Qarawiyyin library is thought to be the oldest in the world and will open its doors to the public for the first time next year.
Founded in 859 by Fatima al-Fihri, daughter of a wealthy Tunisian merchant, the library, along with the mosque and the university that share its name, formed the cultural heart of the ancient capital. All these centuries later, a woman is once again influencing its legacy. Aziza Chaouni, a Fez native based in Toronto, is the architect supervising its restoration.
“We knew where it was more or less, but could not enter. It was this big, mysterious place,” Chaouni told CNN. “I had no idea what lay behind its gigantic iron doors.”
The multi-million restoration, which has lasted three years, aims to protect the 4,000 books and manuscripts housed in al-Qarawiyyin from temperature and humidity damage. Amongst its most precious items is an original copy of Muqaddimah by Ibn Khaldun, one of the most famous Maghreb philosophers and historians, as well as an antique collection of fatwas.
“It was exquisite, but it was in a very bad state,” Chaouni said of the library’s interior when she was granted access. “When you have books and water, it’s a horrible recipe.” So far her team has added a new lab to treat, preserve and digitize some of the oldest texts. Its state-of-the-art equipment will help to mend holes and cracks in ancient scrolls.
The library has long been a mystery to the inhabitants of Fez, the majority of whom have never before been granted access to its book-lined rooms. Before its restoration, only a select group of scholars and those studying at the al-Qarawiyyin University were able to take advantage of the library’s collection.
So precious were its contents, in fact, that an imposing iron door was placed at the entrance, equipped with four locks whose keys were distributed amongst four holders. All four had to be present before anyone could access the books.
The library itself is a splendid example of Islamic architecture, resplendent with internal patios, tiled mosaics and grand arches. But what most surprised Chaouni and her team were the features they uncovered as they ripped away the walls, including a hidden room decorated with intricate woodwork.
“It was this extremely refined and unusual type of roof that was hidden away,” she said. “It’s typical of the element of surprise you fine in Fez. You’ll have these narrow streets and find a small door that enters into an amazing courtyard.”
As her three-year project comes to a close, Chaouni’s biggest hope is that the library will reclaim its place at the heart of Fez’s community, and not just remain an attraction for tourists. She hopes that residents will find joy in reading and learning from these rooms.
“It’s probably the thing I’m most proud of,” she said. “The heritage needs to live. It can’t be thought of as this mummy we need to preserve.”
Estimated to have been established around 300 BC as the capital of the Arab Nabateans, Petra has now become Jordan’s most visited tourist attraction. The city is renowned for its rock-cut architecture and water conduit system.
(Pictured L) Mount Sinai, Petra, stairway to the great high place and funeral chapel, circa 1898-1946.
(Pictured R) Petra, funeral chapel of the Roman style, circa 1898-1946.