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The World’s Oldest Working Library Will Soon Open Its Doors to the Public

After renovations wrap up in September, the library at Morocco’s al-Qarawiyyin University will debut an exhibition section for non-scholars

A courtyard in front of a mosque adjacent to the al-Qarawiyyin Library, pre-restoration. (Khonsali via Wikimedia Commons)
smithsonian.com

When the library at Morocco’s al-Qarawiyyin University was first built in the 9th century, it was one of the world’s great centers for learning. Scholars from around the world traveled to Fez to visit the library and peruse its books, and today it is the oldest continually operating library in the world, Selina Cheng reports for Quartz. But soon students and researchers won't be the only ones with access to the storied library. The architect in charge of a lengthy restoration project to the library, Aziza Chaouni, confirmed to Smithsonian.com that after renovations wrap in September, the library will be debuting a wing for the general public's use for the first time in history.

Founded in 859 by Fatima Al-Fihri, the daughter of a wealthy merchant living in Fez, the al-Qarawiyyin Library holds a remarkable collection of centuries-old texts, such as a 9th-century Quran, the original copy of the 14th-century historical text, the Muqaddimah of Ibn Khaldun​ and the oldest-known collection of accounts of the Prophet Muhammad’s life and writings, Leah Schnelbach writes for Tor. For centuries, historians and scholars traveled across the world to peruse the library’s shelves. However, the library fell into disrepair. After centuries of neglect, the Moroccan Ministry of Culture approached architect Chaouni to restore the library in 2012.

“When I first visited, I was shocked at the state of the place,” architect Chaouni tells Karen Eng for TED.com. “In rooms containing precious manuscripts dating back to the 7th century, the temperature and moisture were uncontrolled, and there were cracks in the ceiling.”

library door
The main door to the al-Qarawiyyin Library. (Kareem Shaheen)

Historically, only students and researchers were allowed inside the library. When Chaouni took on the massive restoration project, she worked on it with the intention to include a space for the public to use, as well.

Since that time, Chaouni has overhauled the building, installing modern equipment to help preserve the ancient documents on display. While the renovated library features new amenities like a cafe and misting stations to help visitors beat the heat, Chaouni and her team also focused their attention on restoring the building's most historic features, like the intricate tilework that covered the library’s walls and floors as well as repairing structural damage to the building’s millennia-old wooden beams, Schnelbach reports.

“The original manuscript room door had four locks. Each of those keys was kept with four different people,” library curator Abdelfattah Bougchouf tells Larbi Arbaoui for Morocco World News. “In order to open the manuscript room, all four of those people had to physically be there to open the door. All of that has been replaced with a four-digit security code.”

In just a few months, the public will be able to see the hard work that went into the restoration for themselves, and walk alongside the university’s scholars and students to explore al-Qarawiyyin Library's historical treasures.

reading room
The renovated reading room in the al-Qarawiyyin Library. (Kareem Shaheen)
About Danny Lewis

Danny Lewis is a multimedia journalist working in print, radio, and illustration. He focuses on stories with a health/science bent and has reported some of his favorite pieces from the prow of a canoe. Danny is based in Brooklyn, NY.

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