DEVOUT and well educated, Fatima al-Fihri was struck by tragedy when she lost her father, husband and brother in quick succession.

Their deaths left her a rich woman, however, and she vowed to spend her inheritance on a mosque and centre for knowledge that would benefit her community.

The result was the multi-million pound restoration of Khizanat al-Qarawiyyin in Fez, the oldest library in the world, which is due to reopen later this year.

Inside the building, which was founded in 859, are priceless manuscripts including a ninth-century copy of the Koran with its elaborate Kufic script written on camel skin. Other texts date back as far as the seventh century and include the words of some of the most renowned Islamic thinkers but were at risk because of the uncontrolled humidity of the building and its general neglect.

The library is located in a complex containing the Qarawiyyin Mosque and the Qarawiyyin University, the oldest in the world. Its alumni include the great Muslim economist and historian Ibn Khaldun who studied there in the 14th century, mystic poet and philosopher Ibn Al-‘Arabi who attended in the 12th century, the Jewish philosopher Moses Maimonides and Andalusian diplomat Leo Africanus, a 16th-century author and traveller.

The library was of key importance to the students at the university which in turn played a leading role in the exchange of knowledge between Islam and the rest of the world in medieval times.


ARCHES, courtyards with fountains and ornate interiors made the library a beautiful place but it was in urgent need of restoration.

Fittingly, the project was awarded to female architect Aziza Chaouni who grew up in Fez and whose great-grandfather journeyed by mule from rural Morocco to study at the university in the 19th century.

“One of his homes was the library,” she said. “It has this magical aura.”

However, although her great-uncle was a coppersmith whose workshop was near the library, Chaouni did not set foot inside the building until asked to restore it in 2012.

As architecture is traditionally a male preserve in Morocco, she was initially surprised to be asked but has embraced the project with enthusiasm.

“It has to continue to live,” she said. “I hope it will open soon, and the public will come and enjoy seeing the manuscripts for the first time. But I also hope that the people from Fez will use the space like a second home. The library’s value is not simply to preserve it for tourists, but that it is functioning.”


HER team was faced with an uphill task – quite literally as the library had been expanded at various times with each interconnected structure built on a different part of a steep hill.

“Throughout the years, the library underwent many rehabilitations, but it still suffered from major structural problems, a lack of insulation, and infrastructural deficiencies like a blocked drainage system, broken tiles, cracked wood beams, exposed electric wires, and so on,” said Chaouni.

The library was also full of surprises.

“One of the startling aspects about restoring a building this old is that you never know what’s behind a wall. You could scrape it and find a painting, take out the painting and find a door – and so on. We discovered some unexpected things, especially underground, such as a centuries-old sewage system.”

The team also had to bring the library up to date with modern technology aimed at preserving the manuscripts that encapsulate centuries of knowledge in subjects from astronomy to theology, grammar and law.

“I didn’t want the building to become an embalmed cadaver,” said Chaouni. “There has to be a fine balance between keeping the original spaces, addressing the needs of current users, including students, researchers and visitors, and integrating new sustainable technologies – solar panels, water collection for garden irrigation, and so on.”

The team also took great care in restoring the original courtyard fountains as a nod to the Unesco world heritage status of Fez’s medina.


THE project is seen as being of national importance for Morocco and King Mohammed VI is expected to attend the official reopening this autumn.

According to Abdullah al-Henda, who is part of the restoration team, the library is more than just a building.

“It was a bridge of knowledge of researchers, between Africa and between the Middle East and Europe,” he said.

It created a place for Muslims and non-Muslims to exchange ideas and in the 10th century, Pope Sylvester II, a keen scholar, was one of many who sought out the building.

Around 4,000 manuscripts are contained in the library including an original copy of Ibn Khaldun’s Muqaddimah.

“We have to preserve the library,” said Henda. “We have to restore it because it’s our identity. It’s our archives. It’s our memory.”

The library is part of a plan to restore the city as a cultural and spiritual capital, a status it lost as Rabat became the focus of Moroccan political life when the country was a French protectorate.

Other parts of Fez are being renovated and Chaouni is promoting the clean-up of the river, once called the River of Jewels, which has lost its sparkle due to pollution and dumping.

“The medina of Fez has the largest pedestrian network, the largest number of historic buildings inside, and I think as a model, as a living city, it’s not just a city for tourists,” she said. “It is still transforming and adjusting, and as a pedestrian city it’s a great model for sustainability.”