When it comes to institutions of learning, people often make the automatic assumption that Western countries tend to lead in terms of prestige, quality, and even establishment. If I were to ask you where the oldest library in the world is located, what will your response be? Students of political science might guess Greece – the commonly accepted birthplace of democracy – or students of history may guess Iraq, as Mesopotamia (as it was then known) is the commonly accepted birthplace of civilisation. Many people may automatically assume this library is located in Europe or America. It is, however, located much closer to home. The oldest continuously running library in the world can be found on the African continent in Fez, Morocco.
The University of al-Qarawiyyin in Fez was founded and opened in 859 by Fatima Al-Fihri, a woman who inherited her father’s fortunes after they moved from Al Qayrawan, or modern-day Tunisia. The university was founded as part of a complex which included a mosque and a library, and although the university has been moved to another part of Morocco, the library and mosque have remained in this ancient complex.
The university subsequently became one of the leading spiritual and educational centres in the historic Muslim world. In 1963 it was incorporated into the modern state university system of Morocco. According to Fez Guide Advisor the University of al-Qarawiyyin 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 university.” The curriculum at the University of al-Qarawiyyin concentrates on Islamic religious and legal sciences, focusing on Arabic linguistics and Maliki law. Some lessons are also offered in other subjects such as English and French.
Hosted in the ancient complex of the al-Qarawiyyin University, the al-Qarawiyyin Library which was also opened in 859 is largely believed to be the oldest in the world and houses an astonishing collection of 4,000 rare books and ancient manuscripts authored by renowned scholars. After years of dilapidation, the Ministry of Culture made plans for the library’s restoration and it has been restored during the last three years by another woman, Canadian-Moroccan architect Aziza Chaouni. This was no easy feat as a river was discovered running underneath the floors. Part of the restoration process was not just to make the library modern but to open it to the public as well. The restored library now has an underground canal system which drains away moisture in the library and a special room hosts some of the most ancient manuscripts, one of which is a 9th-century copy of the Qur’an written in Kufic, the oldest form of Arabic calligraphy, on camel skin. A new lab with state-of-the-art machinery which will be used to treat, preserve, and digitise some of the oldest texts was added to the library. The idea behind this is to make available some of these ancient manuscripts online and share the knowledge and treasures beyond the library walls and even beyond the borders of Morocco with the rest of the world.
The renovation of the library forms part of a plan to restore Fez into a spiritual and cultural capital of the world as it was once known. Renovations have been taking place in other parts of the city as well, and architect Chaouni has also been working on a plan to restore the river Fez which is slowly coming back to life. Concepts such as the Fez Riads and festivals such as the Fes Festival of World Sacred Music have also helped to inject new life and draw young people to the Fez medina.
A wing of the library is set to be opened to the general public in the next few months, most probably at the beginning of 2017 and plans are in the pipeline to hold an exhibition of the most prized collections in the library. A true gem of historic, educational, and cultural significance, I would definitely add this one to my ultimate African bucket list.