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One of the world’s oldest libraries in Morocco reopens

While the library was never closed to scholars, it had to shut down its public operations due to the delicate state of the building. Many parts of the structure were reduced to a pile of rubble, a result of neglect, lack of financial support, and heat and humidity.

Almost 1,200 years old, the library is among the oldest continuously operational libraries in the world. In 2012, the Moroccan culture ministry requested the TED foundation to take up renovation of the decrepit building, after receiving funding from Kuwait’s Arab Bank. Aziz Chaouni, a Moroccan architect was given the delicate task of renovating the place. She explained the many challenges faced in such an operation. “When I first visited, I was shocked at the state of the place. In rooms containing precious manuscripts dating back to the seventh century, the temperature and moisture were uncontrolled, and there were cracks in the ceiling,” she said.

Manuscripts of theology, law and science were at risk in this ancient library. From poet Ibn Al Arabi to historian Ibn Khaldoun, many of the Arabic world’s greatest minds had been molded within these walls. Al-Qarawiyyin also played an integral role in the transfer of mathematics and science from Asia to Europe and vice-versa. The library is, in fact, part of the UNESCO World heritage Site of Medina, Fez.

The library was founded as a mosque in 859 by Fatima El-Fihriya, the daughter of a prosperous Tunisian immigrant to Fez. Fatima devoted her life and wealth to building a mosque and a center of learning for her community. The initial structure was enlarged over the years, and now includes a reading room, a conference hall, a laboratory for the restoration of ancient manuscripts, a collection of rare books and a twelfth-century exhibit hall. The recent redesign has added new offices for the administration.

While working hard to protect and preserve, Chaouni had to bring a sense of modern pragmatism to the project. “I didn’t want the building to become an embalmed cadaver!” she said. “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.”

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