In the fascinating city of Fez, Morocco, the world’s oldest library has stood since A.D. 859. It was built by Fatima Al-Fihri, daughter of a wealthy Tunisian merchant. She loved learning and had an undying curiosity about the world. Fatima oversaw the construction of Quaraouiyine Mosque, Quaraouiyine Library, and Quaraouiyine University, the latter attended by many illuminaries, including the philosopher Moses Maimonides (1135-1204).
In 1963, the university was moved to another part of Fez, but the mosque and library remained at their ancient site. Over the centuries, the library amassed a grand collection of rare books and ancient Arabic manuscripts—some 5,600 in all, including a ninth-century Quran written on camel skin, a 14th-century historical treatise by the renowned scholar Ibn Khaldun (previously displayed at the Louvre), and an original manuscript on Islamic jurisprudence.
In 2012, the Moroccan Culture Ministry contacted Canadian architect Aziza Chaouni, a native of Fez, about restoration of the library, which had fallen into extreme disrepair.
Over the past five years, Chaouni and her team have rebuilt the foundations and installed new sewage and subterranean canal systems. Each tile of the building’s iconic green roof has been individually restored and painstakingly put in place by hand.
Chaouni has also introduced modern touches—superior lighting, heating, air conditioning, and a high-tech laboratory in the basement where precious manuscripts are treated, preserved, and digitized.
Chaouni wanted to do more than fix a broken building. “It has to continue to live,” she explains. “I hope… the public will come and enjoy seeing the manuscripts for the first time. But I also hope that people of Fez will use the space like a second home.”
This fits in well with the overall plans for the ancient city, where renovations are taking place in other quarters (including infrastructure in the medina, a UNESCO World Heritage site) to ensure that relics of ages past are an integral part of 21st-century city life.
Fez medina, explains Chaouni, “has [a large] pedestrian network, many historic buildings inside, and is a living city, not just for tourists. It is still transforming and adjusting, and… is a great model for sustainability.”
The exact opening date of the library has yet to be announced, but it is expected to be sometime this year.
For information about a visit to Morocco—Fez and beyond—contact Kiran Chand at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 888-490-8013.
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