Al-Qarawiyyan: Africa’s oldest library is now open to tourists

Culture Contributor
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Amazing Institution

Do you love books? May 2016 offered a great gift to bibliophiles like you. Africa’s oldest library Al-Qarawiyyan (also spelt Qarawiyin and Karueein) was back in business. This library is also one of the oldest continuously operating libraries in the whole world. It is located in the town of Fez, in Morocco. The prestigious Time Magazine listed the library as one of the “greatest places” to visit. Thanks to an initiative by the Moroccan government, according to Time, the library is now accessible to academicians and tourists alike. Thus, the library is no longer just a research-center for academicians, but also a major tourist attraction. The library also showcases the heights to which Islamic civilization had reached in the middle ages.

History of Africa’s Oldest Library Al-Qarawiyyan

The Encyclopaedia Britannica informs us, “The Qarawiyin Mosque is the centre of a university that was founded in ad 859.” Africa’s oldest library Al-Qarawiyyan was part of this mosque and university, and the library is 1162 years old as of 2021. This makes the library the oldest in the African continent. The encyclopaedia further states, “When the Muslims were expelled from Spain beginning in the 13th century, many came to Fès and to Qarawīyīn, bringing knowledge of European and Moorish arts and sciences. By the 14th century, there were said to be 8,000 students at the university.”

An Arab woman named Fatima bint Muhammad al-Fihriyya al-Qurashia founded the Qarawiyyan mosque and university. She lived between C 800 and C 880. The Guinness Book of World Records confirms, “The oldest existing, and continually operating educational institution in the world is the University of Karueein, founded in 859 AD in Fez, Morocco.”

The Library and its Contents

Africa’s oldest library al-Qarawiyyan in its collection has manuscripts on theology, astronomy, law, and various sciences, and many of these manuscripts are as old as from the 7th century. These include, for example, a copy of the holy Quran that dates back to the 9th century, and it is a wonderful example of Kufic calligraphy. Again, the library has a manuscript that deals with the Maliki School of Islamic jurisprudence. Renowned Spanish Muslim philosopher Ibn Rushd penned the manuscript. It also has a copy of Muqadimmah, which Ibn Khaldun wrote in the 14th century.

The UNESCO states that Africa’s oldest library al-Qarawiyyan is the oldest continually operational higher educational institution in the world. Several great scholars studied here in the medieval ages. Among these were Ibn al-Arabi (1165-1240), the great mystic poet and philosopher. So did the 14th-century economist and historian Ibn Khaldun. The library played an important role in the exchange of knowledge between Muslim and Christian scholars of the middle ages.

Renovation of Library Al-Qarawiyyan

Sadly, Africa’s oldest library al-Qarawiyyan had fallen out of use for several decades in the 20th century. Thankfully, the Moroccan government revived the library and gave it a facelift after the country’s independence in 1956. Famous Moroccan-born Canadian architect Aziza Chaouni got the responsibility to renovate the library. Thereafter experts carefully renovated the building of the library, making sure to retain its medieval look. Accordingly, the courtyard, the fountains, the tile-work inside the building, and various other parts were restored.

Recently, the Moroccan government commissioned a Moroccan-born Canadian architect Prof. Aziza Chaouni, to renovate and rehabilitate the library to its original splendor. Dr. Chaouni teaches at the University of Toronto. She undertook the delicate and ambitious task of restoring the main features of the building. Architects have restored the courtyard fountains, the intricate tile work, and a 12th-century cupola. The idea was to make it look as close to original as possible and retain the medieval charm. Even the contents of Africa’s oldest library al-Qarrawiyyan are being very carefully conserved and digitization of the manuscripts are also in progress.


(Written by Author and Translator Nilanjan Hajra)

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