The Ancient al-Qarawiyyin Library in Fez. The oldest library in the world.


The Ancient al-Qarawiyyin Library in Fez. The oldest library in the world.

Photo by: Gregor Inkret

Gregor Inkret

You Can Visit The World's Oldest Library in Fez, Morocco

By: Anna Todd

Check out rare books at the world's oldest continually operating library.

August 01, 2019

Imagine heading to the library for some light reading and picking up a 9th-century Quran or a 10th-century account of the Prophet Muhammad's life. Both works, as well as 4,000 other rare books, can be found at the world's oldest continually operating library. Al-Qarawiyyin library in Fez, Morocco opened in 1359 C.E., at the University of Al-Qarawiyyin (also the world's oldest, built in 859 C.E.). The library has since been restored to its former glory, and the precious documents that were once under lock and key are now available to the public.

Women Get Stuff Done

You can thank two boss women for your access to this historic space. First, Fatima El-Fihriya. Like many other wealthy women in the medieval Islamic world, she had received a top-notch education growing up. But in those days, you didn't really go to "school" to get your degree. In fact, you didn't get a degree at all. As an adult, however, many of the male members of her family passed away, leaving Fatima and her sister Mariam with a sizeable inheritance. She used that money to pioneer a brand-new concept: a place that would not just educate you, but grant you a certificate guaranteeing that your education was complete. Fatima El-Fihriya herself was one of the first people to receive that degree — in fact, you can still visit her original diploma on a wooden board at the library.

Fatima El-Fihriya did a lot of the heavy lifting back in the 14th century, but the work has continued ever since then. Enter the woman responsible for the library's current splendor: Aziza Chaouni. In 2017, she and her team of architects took on the major renovation of the 650-year-old building. The engineers had some formidable tasks ahead of them, like rebuilding the library's foundations, installing a new sewage system, and re-tiling the iconic green roof. To prevent humidity from harming the works even further, they installed air conditioning. Other modern improvements were made, such as installing solar panels, digital locks to secure the rare book room, and, according to CNN, "a high-tech laboratory built for restoring precious manuscripts."

As Old As Algebra

Al-Qarawiyyin university is only 30 years younger than the city of Fez itself. Around the same time the library was being built, algebra (itself a Muslim invention) was just making its way into Europe. It's fitting, then, that the library contains not only a treasure trove of priceless religious texts, but also numerous mathematical and scientific works as well. Thanks to Aziza Chaouni, its beautiful fountains and gorgeous white-columned passageways are now open to the public as well. As you browse through several centuries of renowned scholars, you'll be following in the footsteps of some of the most ambitious and brilliant women in history.

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