Moroccan city boasts world’s oldest library
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