First Published: 2016-12-02

Qarawiyyin library holds written wonders
World's oldest library in Morocco's ancient city of Fez is home to priceless treatises in Islamic studies, astronomy, medicine.
Middle East Online

Worth a visit

FEZ - Nestled in a labyrinth of streets in the heart of Morocco's ancient city of Fez, stands the world's oldest working library.

Its sculpted dark wooden door stands almost hidden on the edge of a square where artisans hammer away at copper in a deafening din, delighting passing tourists.

But for the few lucky enough to be allowed behind the door, a staircase tiled with green and blue hints at the written wonders beyond.

As early writings from the Arabic-speaking world have come under increasing threat from extremists, the Qarawiyyin library is home to priceless treatises in Islamic studies, astronomy and medicine.

Last year the Islamic State group burned thousands of rare manuscripts at the Mosul library in Iraq, and in 2013 Islamists torched countless early writings from the Islamic world and Greece in Mali's Timbuktu.

The Qarawiyyin library has just emerged from years of restoration, although no date has yet been fixed for a public opening.

"All that's left to be done are a few finishing touches and the electricity," says Boubker Jouane, the library's deputy director.

"A house of science and wisdom", according to its founder Fatima Al-Fihri, the Qarawiyyin library was one of the Arab world's largest centres of learning.

Fihri, the daughter of a wealthy merchant from Al-Qayrawan in Tunisia, established the library, the university that originally housed it and a mosque in 859.

- Manuscript room -

Today the university has moved to a new location, but the mosque -- which shares an emerald-green tile roof with the library -- still stands.

The library as it appears today was built in the 14th century under sultan Abu Inan, and completely restructured under king Mohammed V, the grandfather of Morocco's current monarch.

Over the centuries, sultans, noblemen, princesses and wise men have contributed works to its shelves.

Under an imposing ceiling of wooden arabesques and a huge copper chandelier, the main reading room sits next an area that contains some 20,000 books.

A short walk -- through a corridor of mosaics, past panels of sculpted cedar wood under finely chiselled ceilings -- leads to the library's centrepiece.

The manuscript room is hidden behind two heavy metal doors and protected by an alarm system and surveillance cameras.

Its wooden window shutters are closed to prevent sunlight from entering.

The precious manuscripts are each bundled in a grey-coloured cardboard file and displayed on standard metal shelves.

Works can be consulted sitting at one of two chairs next to a simple table -- on which sits a green felt cushion embroidered with gold thread.

Around 3,800 titles are kept here, some of them priceless.

One example is a treatise on medicine by philosopher and physician Ibn Tufayl from the 12th century.

- 'Ailments in verse' -

"From baldness to corn on the foot, all ailments of the body are listed -- in verse to make them easier to learn," Jouane says.

The word "diabetes", which is of Greek origin, already features written in Arabic script.

Another gem is a handwritten copy of historian and philosopher Ibn Khaldun's "Book of Lessons". The treatise in history has been signed by the 14th-century thinker himself.

"Praise be to God, what is written belongs to me," a line he wrote reads in breathtakingly elegant handwriting.

Another 12th-century manuscript -- a treatise in astronomy by philosopher Al-Farabi -- shows the course of the planet Jupiter, complete with drawings of astonishing precision.

And then there is a treatise on the Malikite doctrine in Islam written by the grandfather of the Arab philosopher Averroes.

Its 200 pages of gazelle leather are inscribed with tiny immaculate calligraphy dotted with embellishments in gold ink.

Perhaps surprisingly, one of the "works most in demand" according to Jouane is Christian: a 12th century copy of the Gospel of Mark in Arabic.

It was translated "in all likelihood by a Christian man of letters from Andalusia who had come to Qarawiyyin to learn Arabic", says Jouane, expressing pride at the "incredible degree of tolerance at the time".

The library counted 30,000 manuscripts when it was founded under Abu Inan. But many were destroyed, stolen or plundered over the years, says Jouane.

"There's only very little left of what once was, but today we carefully watch over these priceless treasures."


Israel confirms it hit suspected Syrian nuclear reactor in 2007

Syrian rebels reach evacuation deal in Eastern Ghouta town

Abbas calls US ambassador to Israel 'son of a dog'

UN says Turkey security measures 'curtail human rights'

'Saudization' taking its toll on salesmen

UN launching final push to salvage Libya political agreement

Conditions for displaced from Syria's Ghouta 'tragic': UN

Sisi urges Egyptians to vote, denies excluding rivals

Rights Watch says Libya not ready for elections

Saudis revamp school curriculum to combat Muslim Brotherhood

American mother trapped in Syria’s Ghouta calls out Trump

Syria workers say French firm abandoned them to jihadists

Grim Nowruz for Kurds fleeing Afrin

Sarkozy back in custody for second day of questioning

Netanyahu says African migrants threaten Jewish majority

US Senate votes on involvement in Yemen war as Saudi prince visits

What a ‘limited strike’ against Syria’s Assad might mean

Natural gas in eastern Mediterranean fuels increasing tensions

Erdogan tells US to stop ‘deceiving’, start helping on Syria

IS controls Damascus district in surprise attack

French ex-president held over Libya financing allegations

NGO says Israeli army violating Palestinian minors’ rights

Human rights chief slams Security Council for inaction on Syria

US warns Turkey over civilians caught in Syria assault

Saudi crown prince keen to cement ties with US

Erdogan vows to expand Syria op to other Kurdish-held areas

Kurdish envoy accuses foreign powers of ignoring Turkish war crimes

Morocco authorities vow to close Jerada's abandoned mines

Israeli soldier sees manslaughter sentence slashed

Turkey insists no plans to remain in Afrin

Cairo voters show unwavering support for native son Sisi

Forum in Jordan explores new teaching techniques

Gaza Strip woes receive renewed attention but no fix is expected

Kurds, Syrian opposition condemn Afrin looting

36 jihadists killed in Egypt’s Sinai

Israel arrests French consulate worker for gun smuggling

Pro-Turkish forces loot Afrin

Israel prepares to demolish Jerusalem attacker's home

Saudi crown prince says his country to seek nuclear bomb if Iran does

Arab women artists in diaspora focus on identity and loss

Tunisia’s Central Bank targets inflation but may hurt growth prospects

Libya’s health system reflects a larger humanitarian crisis

Israel blasts Gaza underground tunnel

Abu Dhabi awards France's Total stakes in oil concessions

Erdogan says Afrin city centre under ‘total’ control