July 11, 2016
In Morocco, a ninth-century library reopens, becomes the oldest operating library in the world
by Chad Felix
It was Fatima El-Fihriya, the daughter of a wealthy Tunisian immigrant, who funded the construction of what is now heralded as the oldest functioning library in the world.
The library is part of al-Qarawiyyin University, a complex built in the year 859 to enable study, worship, and intellectual exchange, in Fez, Morocco.
By the tenth century the educational facility, which grew to specialize in the fields of Islamic religious instruction and thought, politics, and the natural sciences, was fully functional, with stunning architecture and a diverse collection of books and other artifacts.
But, as Atlas Obscura’s Eric Grundhauser points out, it wasn’t until recently that al-Qarawiyyin could claim its current title. Like most things, the library deteriorated in the twenty-first century: the calligraphy adorning its walls and arches was regularly assaulted by unregulated humidity, its stone fountains and tile mosaics crumbled under the insistent weight of time, and its books were under constant threat by a faulty, seepy, out-of-date sanitation system. It was good news, then, when in 2012 the architect Aziz Chaouni was commissioned to renovate this excellent place, so obviously worthy of renovation.
Now, some four years later, renovations are complete, and the complex is open again. And while back in April the New Arab reported that the library and its collection would remain likely private, with access granted only to scholars, the institution has since changed tracks: the always beautiful, and now beautifully renovated, al-Qarawiyyin is open to all.
Chad Felix is the Director of Library and Academic Marketing at Melville House, and a former bookseller.