Lonely Planet Writer

World's oldest library set to re-open in Morocco after extensive refurbishment

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The oldest library in the world at the University of Al Qarawiyyin, in Fez, Morocco, is set to open its doors to the world again.

Al-Qarawiyyin Mosque and university in Fez.
Al-Qarawiyyin Mosque and university in Fez. Image by Izzet Keribar

Historically only available to researchers and students, the extensively refurbished library has now space for public visits as well. The hallowed building dates back over 1000 years to 859, making it the oldest library in continuous use, according to Smithsonian.com. It was opened by a woman, Fatima Al-Fihri, the daughter of a wealthy Tunisian merchant in Fez. The Guardian reports that she oversaw the construction of the mosque and also attended lectures at the university.

Al Qarawiyyin has been famous for its unique collection of ancient books and texts. This includes a Quran from the ninth century, as well as what is considered the oldest surviving collection about the Prophet Muhammad’s life and writings. It has served as a cultural centre for historians from across the globe who arrive to study at the ancient library.

Al-Qarawiyyin university Founded in 859, as a religious school.
Al-Qarawiyyin university Founded in 859, as a religious school. Image by Gavriel Jecan

The architect and Fez native who undertook the restoration work on the ancient building, Aziza Chaouni, said re-opening the facility to the public once more was “like healing wounds.” She said she didn’t just want to fix broken tiles, but ensure that the library continued to live so that the public could enjoy seeing its historic contents. She added that the library isn’t just for tourists; it should be a functioning part of locals’ lives.

A new sewage and underground canal system has been introduced to get rid of moisture that posed a major threat to many of its prized manuscripts. The new library also boasts an elaborate lab designed to treat, preserve and digitise the ancient texts. With extremists destroying large chunks of the region’s heritage across Iraq and Syria, added security has been installed to protect its vast array of manuscripts. There are also staff who have a real interest in preserving the old manuscripts for posterity. As one of the caretakers explained: “you can hurt us, but not the books.”