World’s oldest library to reopen

The oldest library in the world, founded by a woman, is being rehabilitated by another woman. The al-Qarawiyyin Library in Fez, Morocco will reopen its doors in May 2016. The refurbishment came with its challenges and surprises for architect Aziza Chaouni.

PE library A new lighting system was fitted in the library’s main reading room. (Image: Aziza Chaouni, TED)


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Priya Pitamber

The oldest working library in the world, the al-Qarawiyyin Library in Fez, Morocco, founded in 859, is reopening its doors in May this year. This comes after the Moroccan Ministry of Culture approached architect Aziza Chaouni to rehabilitate the crumbling establishment.

In an interview with TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design), the global set of conferences run by the private non-profit Sapling Foundation, she spoke passionately about the project.

Rich in history

The library was founded by a woman, Fatima el-Fihriya, the daughter of a rich immigrant from al-Qayrawan, today’s Tunisia.

According to TED, el-Fihriya spent her entire inheritance on building a mosque and knowledge centre.

“Mystic poet and philosopher Ibn al-‘Arabi studied there in the 12th century, historian and economist Ibn Khaldun attended in the 14th century, while in medieval times, al-Qarawiyyin played a leading role in the transfer of knowledge between Muslims and Europeans,” reads the TED website.

When Chaouni first visited the library, she was shocked at the state of the buildings and how this affected the condition of ancient manuscripts, which covered a range of subjects such as astronomy, law, and theology.

Challenges and surprises

She also noticed that in its 1 157 years of existence, the library had been extended in a hodgepodge manner.

“Throughout the years, the library underwent many rehabilitations, but it still suffered from major structural problems, a lack of insulation, and infrastructural deficiencies like a blocked drainage system, broken tiles, cracked wood beams, exposed electric wires, and so on,” Chaouni said.

There were other challenges too, such as finding similar material to match ancient mosaic, cracked wooden railings and ceiling beams. But, she said, there were many surprises too.

A startling aspect about restoring such an old building was never knowing what was behind its walls. “You could scrap it and find a painting, take out the painting and find a door, and so on. We discovered some unexpected things, especially underground, such as a centuries-old sewage system.”

It’s about balance

Throughout her work on the project, Chaouni wanted to keep the harmony between the past and the present.

“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.”

She also updated the fountains in the library’s grounds. “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,” reads the website. So Chaouni was careful when she restored what was there. Where she built new fountains, she made sure she used local construction materials and systems.

Today, as she puts the finishing touches, Chaouni is proud, tired and eager to open the library doors to people once more.

“Both Moroccans and foreign visitors will get to glimpse, for the first time, some of the library’s amazing and unique manuscripts, as well as to enjoy its architecture.”