Among its most illustrious documents are a version of the Quran dating back to the 9th century written in Kufic calligraphy, and a work on the Maliki School of Islamic jurisprudence written by Ibn Rashid (or Averroes) around the middle of the 12th century.
The world’s oldest existing library is in University of Al Qarawiyyin (Al Quaraouiyine) in Fez, Morocco—it was established in 859 AD. The library was originally founded as a mosque by a visionary Muslim woman, Fatima al-Fihri. She belonged to a mercantile family, and inherited her father’s legacy after her family moved from Al Qayrawan (present-day Tunisia) to Fez. Most of her inheritance went for the endowment of the mosque-library. In the 10th century it diversified into a university. In recent times, the university complex has gone through several rounds of rehabilitation. It was finally closed in 2012, for gargantuan restorations.
Al-Fihri was culturally inquisitive and developed a fascination for religious knowledge. She led the construction of the mosque and, until late into her life, attended lectures delivered at the premises of the adjoining school, by reputed scholars who had traveled far and wide.
In the last three years of its rehabilitation, the library was restored to a workable condition by the Candian-Moroccan architect, Aziza Chaouni. Although Chaouni is originally from Fez, she had not even heard of the library until in 2012 when she was engaged by the Moroccan Ministry of Culture to lead its rehabilitation. The library had suffered massive weathering from humidity, and negligence leading to lack of insulation, infrastructural problems such as blocked sewage system, cracked tiles, exposed live wires, fractured wood-beams and so on.
Although the University of Al Qarawiyyin has migrated to a different campus, the mosque and the library remain in the original complex. The university is still among the leading institutions, in the Muslim world, for religious education.
Meanwhile, the library hosts about 4000 rare books and early Arabic manuscripts written by renowned scholars of Islam, in those days. Among its most illustrious documents are a version of the Quran dating back to the 9th century written in Kufic calligraphy, and a work on the Maliki School of Islamic jurisprudence written by Ibn Rashid (or Averroes) around the middle of the 12th century. Another of its prized collections, Ibn Khaldun’s 14th century work, Muqadimmah, had an itinerary in the Louvre Museum in Paris, for six months, while the library’s restorations were underway.
Photograph by Chico Boomba
The library retains the architectural stamps of over one thousand years of ruling dynasties, to which the calligraphic Arabesque wall designs, the ceramic floor patterns, Saracenic arches, and the wooden ceiling carvings bear eloquent testimonies. The restorations were endorsed by King Mohammed VI, in 1999, immediately after his ascension to the throne. One wing of the library has been open to tourists, since May, 2016.
The oldest known libraries of the world were in Nippur Temple (Iraq, 2500 BC) and Ebla (Syria, 2250 BC). Other ancient libraries came up in India, in the universities of Nalanda (427 AD) and Takshashila (6-5 century BC). But these have ceased to exist since many hundreds of years ago, leaving Al Qarawiyyin’s library to be the oldest one in function.