So goes an old Moroccan proverb. For centuries, wise men have flocked to the city of Fez seeking knowledge from the books held within its ancient library at al-Qarawiyyin. Scholars and students at the adjacent university, as well local artisans, have long drawn from its carefully curated manuscripts, providing a touchstone to Morocco’s past as pioneer in Islamic arts and science.
Nestled within the city’s medina, the institution is only 30 years younger than Fez itself. The oldest university in the world, according to Guiness World Records, al-Qarawiyyin opened in 859 AD under the patronage of Fatima al-Fihri, a wealthy Arab woman who also commissioned a mosque and madrasa. Its library came along in 1359 AD and contains manuscripts that are among the earliest in Islamic history. A ninth century Quran, a 10th century account of the Prophet Muhammad’s life, as well as formative scientific and medical textbooks can all be found here.
From generation to generation, custodians have kept these precious documents under lock and key for generations, working to the thrum of copper artisans hammering away outside the library’s walls. While wars have raged and colonizers come and gone, al-Qarawiyyin has stayed much the same.
Yet being a living historical artifact has brought its own problems.
Over centuries, rain water trickled off the neighboring mosque’s roof, seeping into the library. Unbeknownst to the staff, the situation had gotten so bad a stream of water was slowly flowing beneath al-Qarawiyyin’s floorboards. Rot set in and the building’s foundations were in danger.
“Fez has been a pivotal center of learning, especially for Islamic studies,” says Moha Ennaji, professor of linguistics and culture and the University of Fez. But with its centerpiece falling into disrepair, the city’s status was under threat.
The Ministry of Culture kicked into action, enlisting Aziza Chaouni and her team of architects to oversee a major renovation of the library. Engineers re-built foundations, installing a new sewage system; each tile of the building’s iconic green roof was restored individually and painstakingly relayed.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the ancient site had concealed some secrets over the years.
“We were always discovering things as we were ripping out walls,” says Chaouni. Among them was a doorway connecting the library and the mosque, hidden within a 16th century cupola.
The rebuild has also brought in a few modern touches — lighting, heating and air conditioning, and in the basement, a high-tech laboratory built for restoring precious manuscripts.