The oldest working library in the world is the al-Qarawiyyin Library in which country?

And the answer: Morocco.    
A document from the Qarawiyyin's library, claimed by some scholars to be the world's oldest surviving medical degree, issued in 1207 CE. Photo credit: public domain.

Established in the year 859, the al-Qarawiyyin Library in Fez, Morocco is home to 4,000 rare books, including a 9th-century version of the Quran written in ornate Kufic script on camel skin. The library was recently restored in 2016.

The way we consume information is forever in debt to the brilliance of one 9th-century woman. Fatima al Fihria descended from a wealthy Tunisian merchant, which meant that she had also received an excellent education. With that, though, there were some constraints. Education during this time was hardly reminiscent of how we understand it now—there was no real “school,” no graduates, and certainly no degree. Yet, Fatima saw this fit to be changed.

With the inheritance she received upon the death of older male family members, Fatima chose to fund the world’s first library (and, while she was at it, founded the Qarawiyyin Mosque and Qarawiyyin University). Yet, for most of its history, the history and knowledge that lay behind its doors was closed off—only students and researchers were typically granted access to the vast archives that sat on its shelves.

Over the centuries, the library fell into disrepair. Without public access or knowledge of the library’s texts, few could conceptualize all that the al-Qarawiyyin Library held. Fez native Aziza Chaouni recalls:

"We knew where it was more or less, but could not enter. It was this big, mysterious place. I had no idea what lay behind its gigantic iron doors."

Yet just as Fatima had, Aziza realized where opportunity lay. With the help of her team of architects, Aziza Chaouni decided to take on the major renovation of the 650-year-old building. Needless to say, engineers had some formidable tasks ahead of them. Rebuilding the library's foundations, installing a new sewage system, and re-tiling the iconic green roof were several of the highest priority items, but preventative measures also had to be put in place to protect the old building. To prevent humidity from harming the works even further, they installed air conditioning, solar panels, and digital locks to secure the rare book room, and, according to CNN, "a high-tech laboratory built for restoring precious manuscripts." The renovated library opened its doors to the public for the first time in 2017.

Learn more about the historic al-Qarawiyyin Library here.


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