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The Historic Library That Almost Banned Visitors

After an intricate restoration and battle with the government, Morocco’s al-Qarawiyyin Library will soon welcome the public.

The reading room of the al-Qarawiyyin Library has been carefully renovated. (Samia Errazouki/AP)

The medina, or old city, of Fez, Morocco, is the kind of place a visitor never forgets. A well-preserved medieval metropolis that is pedestrian-only, it’s easy to become lost in streets that get narrower and narrower as you turn off the main thoroughfares—until you’re in a tiny passageway whose walls you can touch on either side with outstretched hands. Weavers, coppersmiths, and potters toil in small shops, using methods similar to generations before them.

All this makes it easy to think of Fez as a city where “time has stood still,” a place not where contemporary people live contemporary lives, but an unchanging representation of history. This problem was in the mind of the Fez-born architect Aziza Chaouni when the Moroccan government asked her to restore the city’s al-Qarawiyyin Library, thought to be the oldest library in the world. Chaouni envisioned making the renovated structure a place where past and present meet, whereas government officials were keen to keep it static and sequestered from the public.

Fez’s narrow, pedestrian-only streets are a hallmark of its urban design. (Andrew Nash/Flickr)

The complex that houses the al-Qarawiyyin Mosque and Library has served as the symbolic center of Fez’s medina since it was founded by Fatima al-Fihri, a wealthy and educated woman originally from what is now Tunisia, in 859. (The al-Qarawiyyin University was also part of the complex; it moved to the outskirts of Fez after Morocco’s independence from France in 1956.)

Chaouni confronted an enormous task. The library had seen few visitors in recent decades—only students and researchers could gain access—and had fallen into severe disrepair. Its incredible collection of more than 4,000 historic tomes, including a 9th-century Quran written on camel skin in Kufic, the oldest calligraphic Arabic script, was in danger of disintegrating. Chaouni’s team even found a branch of the Fez River running underneath the library’s floors.

The French had undertaken restoration on the library in the 1940s, and some cosmetic renovations had been completed in 2004. “The internal organs needed work,” Chaouni tells CityLab. “You can put makeup on someone who is very ill, and they’ll look good for a few hours, but on the inside they’re still very sick, so it won’t last.”

Chaouni constructed an underground canal to divert the river. She repaired a blocked drainage system, broken tiles, exposed electrical wires, and a myriad of other structural issues. She also added solar panels, air conditioning, and a lab to preserve and digitize some of the oldest manuscripts.

The al-Qarawiyyin Library contains this 9th-century Quran, as well as the earliest known collection of hadith—the words and deeds of the Prophet Muhammad. (Samia Errazouki/AP)

Obtaining the Moroccan government’s permission to grant the larger population access to the library was Chaouni’s most difficult task. She disliked the idea of renovating the building only for it to become like its city is often seen—as a “mummy, frozen in time.” She wanted it to be a lively, current place, one where Moroccans and international visitors engage with Fez and its celebrated tradition of knowledge.

Chaouni lobbied vigorously until the government relented. As a result, features such as exhibits and a café will also be on offer when the library opens to the public before the end of the year. Along the way, Chaouni often thought she would lose this battle. Even today, she says, “I’ll only sleep soundly when we have the official opening and I see people using it.”

About the Author

  • Mimi Kirk
    Mimi Kirk is a contributing writer to CityLab, with a focus on the Middle East and Asia. She lives in Washington, D.C.