The Khizanat al-Qarawiyyin library in Fez, Morocco, dating back to the 9th century, is home to 4,000 precious texts and is now set to become a model of sustainable restoration and cultural revival.
Second chances are rare in this world, a reality lived especially tragically in strife-torn regions whose cultural traditions, texts and buildings are being threatened by rampaging armies of religious warriors. With calm determination, one region is rebelling against this trend and boldly preserving one of its richest cultural sentinels. It is the where-time-stopped town of Fez in Morocco, a hamlet straight out of our fondest Arabian folk tales where dusty streets and low-rise structures snake and stand across a confusing maze full of the sounds of shouting tradesmen, the shuffling feet of shoppers and pedestrians, and prayer calls from a faraway mosque.
The Khizanat al-Qarawiyyin library in Fez was built in 859 to be a part of a compound of culture and learning that would include the Qarawiyyin Mosque and the legendary Qarawiyyin University (the world’s oldest). The visionary behind the construction was Tunisia’s Fatima al-Fihri, a seminal female connection that is receiving an unexpected honour through Aziza Chaouni, an architect of Canadian-Moroccan descent and a Fez local, who was chosen by the Ministry of Culture to lead the restoration of the ancient library.
The revered but till-recently crumbling library is home to 4,000 prized texts, including a camel skin copy of the Qur’an written in the 9th century in the beautiful Kufic calligraphic script. This sacred tome, along with other oldest manuscripts, are now housed in a temperature-and-humidity-controlled room inside the restored library.
The restored structure will also feature a café, local wood furniture, courtyards shielded by umbrellas, and administrative offices. The cupola will transform into an exhibition space.
The new library, its opening delayed but now anticipated in 2017 with an inauguration presence of King Mohammad VI, will boast of sophisticated gadgetry to preserve the books and slow-down or obliterate the break-down of their pages due to elemental factors. A lab on the site helps with the digitisation of the texts, while a special treatment machine makes sure that the books and manuscripts have just enough moisture in them so as to prevent their cracking. Other mechanical marvels include digital scanners through which ancient paper rolls can be checked for the tiny holes that slowly disintegrate their character.
The current stage of renovation in fact builds on an earlier French effort of the 1940s which introduced lovely relief work and shiny wooden furniture in the complex. The current stretch of renovation, begun in 2012, walked a tight line between restoring long-ignored parts of the building with modern materials, and maintaining original details that are hard to replicate today. The structural additions include a brilliant underground sequence of canals which will ensure that no moisture accumulates in the book storage zone, as well as a new sewerage system.
The Medina of Fez is a UNESCO World Heritage site, deemed a place of ‘Outstanding Universal Value’. The restoration of the Khizanat al-Qarawiyyin library is one more step towards Fez staking a reclamation of its status as a living, breathing city of culture, religion, and knowledge, a position that for centuries lay discarded and in ruins. “I 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,” Chaouni mentioned in an interview.