Moroccan city boasts world’s old­est li­brary

African Independent - - BOOKS -

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 cen­tres of learn­ing. The uni­ver­sity has since moved to a new lo­ca­tion, but the mosque still stands.

The li­brary was built in the 14th 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 to an area that con­tains about 20 000 books.

A short walk 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. The pre­cious manuscripts are each bun­dled in a grey-coloured card­board file and dis­played on stan­dard metal shelves.

About 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 corn on the foot, all ail­ments of the body are listed – in verse to make them eas­ier to learn,” Jouane says.

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.

A trea­tise in as­tron­omy by philoso­pher Al-Farabi shows the course of the planet Jupiter, com­plete with draw­ings of as­ton­ish­ing pre­ci­sion.

Then there is a trea­tise on the Ma­likite doc­trine in Is­lam writ­ten by the grand­fa­ther of the Arab philoso­pher Aver­roes.

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, but many have been de­stroyed, stolen or plun­dered over the years.

“There’s lit­tle left… but to­day we care­fully watch over these price­less trea­sures,” says Jouane. – AFP

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