New chap­ter for world’s old­est li­brary

Early writ­ings from Ara­bic-speak­ing world in­clude price­less trea­tises on astron­omy and medicine

China Daily (Hong Kong) - - WORLD - By AGENCE FRANCEPRESSE in Fez, Morocco

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

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