New chapter for world’s oldest library
Early writings from Arabic-speaking world include priceless treatises on astronomy and medicine
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 stands almost hidden on the edge of a square where artisans hammer away at copper in a deafening din, delighting passing tourists.
But 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.
Last year the Islamic State group burned thousands of rare manuscripts at the Mosul library in Iraq, and in 2013 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 yet been fixed for a public opening.
“All that’s left to be done are a few finishing touches and the electricity,” says 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 centers of learning.
Al-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 14 th century under Sultan Abu Inan, and completely 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 an area that contains some 20,000 books.
A short walk — through a corridor of mosaics, past panels of sculpted cedar wood under finely chiseled ceilings — leads to the library’s centerpiece.
The manuscript room is hidden behind two metal doors and protected by an alarm system and surveillance cameras.
Its wooden window shutters are closed to prevent sunlight from entering.
The precious manuscripts are each bundled in a gray-colored cardboard file and displayed on standard metal shelves.
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.
The library counted 30,000 manuscripts when it was founded under Abu Inan. But many were destroyed or stolen over the years, says Jouane.
“There’s only very little left of what once was, but today we carefully watch over these priceless treasures.”
There’s only very little left of what once was, but today we carefully watch over these priceless treasures.” Boubker Jouane, the Qarawiyyin library’s deputy director