The library attached to al-Qarawiyyin mosque and university (alternate western spellings include Al Karaouin and Al Quaraouiyine, among others) in Fez, Morocco, is not just the oldest active library in the world, it’s also exceptionally beautiful.
Al-Qarawiyyin was founded in 859 by Fatima Al Fihri. The architecture of the university reflects various past styles and ruling dynasties. The decorated interiors include calligraphic designs on the walls, ceramic patterns on the floors, and wooden carvings on the ceilings.
From 2012 to 2016, the library was completely renovated. The restoration was lead by architect Aziza Chaouni. She describes the starting point for her project at TED.com:
“When I first visited, I was shocked at the state of the place.
“In rooms containing precious manuscripts dating back to the 7th century, the temperature and moisture were uncontrolled, and there were cracks in the ceiling. […]
“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.”
One of Chaouni’s leading principles was respect to its authenticity. Her restoration team preserved and salvaged what they could, but when it wasn’t possible, features and details were created from scratch. This included using local materials and construction systems, like furniture by local craftsmen who used native wood. Says Chaouni:
“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.”
Currently a part of Morocco’s state university system, the library is now open to the public in addition to historians and students.
(Incidentally, the university’s famous alumni include the 16th-century Andalusian adventurer known as Leo Africanus, whose book Description of Africa was considered the most authoritative source for northern Africa until the beginning of European exploration and expansion in the African continent.)
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