The World’s Oldest Library Opens to The Public


It is almost impossible not to be surprised; overwhelmed and challenged in this dream they call Morocco. A feast for the senses at all levels, from the dreamy landscape to the labyrinthine medinas. Whether stranded in the souqs or contemplating the pilgrims, these are all variations on the main splendid theme. Image: The Hassan II Mosque

The ancient al-Qarawiyyin Library in Fez isn’t just the oldest library in Africa, it is the oldest library in the world.  Until last month, only researchers had access to it but it is now open to the public. Built in 859, the library was a beacon for scholars, poets, and theologians for hundreds of years, but in recent years it had fallen into terrible disrepair. Now a massive, three-year restoration effort hasn’t just revitalized the building – it’s opened an ancient center of scholarship up to a new generation of readers!

Founded in 859, it’s the oldest working library in the world, holding ancient manuscripts that date as far back as 12 centuries. But modern life had taken a toll on the library, with its buildings falling into disrepair. That’s why in 2012, the Moroccan Ministry of Culture asked TED Fellow and architect Aziza Chaouni to rehabilitate the library so that it can reopen to the general public.

The center includes the large library, as well as a mosque and a university that may be the al-qarawiyyin-mosque-fez-oldest degree-granting institution in the world. It was founded by Fatima El-Fihriya, a rich merchant’s daughter who dedicated her inheritance to building the center (a habit that ran in her family, as her sister, Maryam, was the sponsor of Fez’s Al-Andalus mosque). After the Moroccan Ministry of Culture received a grant from Kuwait’s Arab Bank, they chose Canadian-Moroccan architect Aziza Chaouni, who grew up in Fez, to head the project. Since 2012 she and her team have corrected structural damage and painstakingly updated mosaics to preserved the library’s original beauty, while also modernizing the space with an airy cafe, courtyard umbrellas and misting stations, and a museum highlighting al-Qarawiyyin’s history.

As the center expanded in the 10th and 11th centuries, new facilities were added on that ranged over several levels of surrounding hills, so one of the difficulties of Chaouni’s job was to get each individual space up to the same standard of insulation and wiring. In addition to that, she needed to restore centuries-old wooden beams, and the delicate mosaic tiles called zellige, and faced the additional challenge that comes with an ancient building, like say when you break through a wall and find a centuries-old sewage system.

She describes the challenges inherent in undertaking a daunting, historic project. Chaouni, a TED fellow, talked to their Ideas blog about the restoration:

While working hard to protect and preserve, Chaouni had to bring a sense of 21st-century pragmatism to the project. “I didn’t want the building to become an embalmed cadaver!” she says. “There has to be a fine balance between keeping the original spaces, addressing the needs of current users, including students, researchers and visitors, and integrating new sustainable technologies — solar panels, water collection for garden irrigation, and so on.” Another thing that needed updating: the library’s fountains. Embedded within the dense urban fabric of the UNESCO World Heritage Medina of Fez, fountains are part of the city’s vast and ancient water network. Chaouni took special care to restore the library’s original courtyard fountains, but where necessary, she created them from scratch, using local materials and construction systems, and introducing passive energy.


Another challenge was restoring the books themselves, as NPR relates. al-Qarawiyyin houses texts including a 9th-century Quran written in Kufic calligraphy, the original copy of Ibn Khaldun’s 14th Century Muqadimmah, a manuscript on Islamic jurisprudence by Ibn Rochd (known as Averroes in Europe), and the oldest known collection of Islamic hadith, which are early accounts of the life and words of the Prophet Muhammed.

The University of al-Qarawiyyin or Al Quaraouiyine (Arabic: جامعة القرويين‎‎; French: Université Al Quaraouiyine) is the oldest existing, continually operating and the first degree awarding educational institution in the world according to UNESCO and Guinness World Records and is sometimes referred to as the oldest universit was incorporated into Morocco’s modern state university system in 1963.


The diploma of Fatima El-Fihriya, the woman who founded the University and Library.

Ibn_KhaldunT05Education at Al Quaraouiyine University concentrates on the Islamic religious and legal sciences with a heavy emphasis on, and particular strengths in Classical Arabic grammar/linguistics and Maliki law, although a few lessons on other non-Islamic subjects such as French, English and IT are also offered to students. Teaching is delivered in the traditional method, in which students are seated in a semi-circle (halqa) around a sheikh, who prompts them to read sections of a particular text, asks them questions on particular points of grammar, law, or interpretation, and explains difficult points. Students from all over Morocco and Islamic West Africa attend the Qarawiyyin, although a few might come from as far afield as Muslim Central Asia. Even Spanish Muslim converts frequently attend the institution, largely attracted by the fact that the sheikhs of the Qarawiyyin, and Islamic scholarship in Morocco in general, are heirs to the rich religious and scholarly heritage of Muslim al-Andalus.

Most students at the Qarawiyyin range from between the ages of 13 and 30, and study towards high school-level diplomas and university-level bachelor’s degrees, although Muslim males with a sufficiently high level of Arabic are also able to attend lecture circles on an informal basis, given the traditional category of visitors “in search of [religious and legal] knowledge” (zuwwaar li’l-talab fii ‘ilm). In addition to being Muslim and male, prospective students of the Qarawiyyin are required to have memorized the Qur’an in full as well as several other shorter medieval Islamic texts on grammar and Maliki law, and in general to have a very good command of Classical Arabic.

Fez - Mezquita Qarawiyyin - vista a--rea

The al-Qarawiyyin Library opened to visitors last month, so those of you who are Morocco-bound, be sure to check it out! And for the rest of us, you can learn more about the project here and here, and see more images of al-Qarawayyin’s beautiful mosaics here.


Now You Can Visit the Oldest Library in the World




About Art Selectronic

Art Selectronic is an artist-led initiative, that supports grass-roots contemporary art that remains unswayed by fashion, trends or the whims of government funding. The project involves ongoing research into the placing of contemporary art, it’s audiences and it’s relationship to the everyday. We place great emphasis on context. Our mission is to support new works of contemporary art and foster an audience from a wide range of backgrounds.
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