In 245 AH/859 CE, the first edifice of al-Qarawiyyin was erected in Fes, which would constitute what would later become the oldest continually operating university campus on earth, that would host one of the most celebrated libraries across centuries.
The project was initiated by Fatima al-Fihri, who donated her own money to establish the university after moving, with her family, from Kairouan to Fes. Historians suggest that she had authorization from the Prince Yahya bin Idris.
The historic al-Qarawiyyin library lies in the center of Old Fes, which was considered the cultural capital of Morocco before the establishment of its contemporary capital, Rabat. Both the university complex and Old Fes have been listed as UNESCO World Heritage Sites. The library is part of a complex that is considered among the most important pieces of Arab cultural heritage.
The university is considered the oldest, and has continued its mission uninterrupted since its inception. The complex served as a center for religious, jurisprudential (fiqh), and Arabic studies, until the beginning of the 20th century, when it was modernized into a university in the contemporary sense, and registered as an accredited institution in Morocco. However, it remains focused on jurisprudence and language studies.
A number of intellectuals, historians, and prominent figures graduated from the university throughout its history, including renowned historian Ibn Khaldun, philosopher Ibn Rushd (Averroes), as well as the prominent diplomat and thinker from Fes, al-Hassan al-Wazzan, more famously known as Leo Africanus.
Al-Qarawiyyin library is moreover considered among the oldest in the world, though it had remained closed for a long time until its recent reopening in 2012. The Moroccan government had commissioned architect Aziza al-Shawnie to restore the library and prepare it for reopening that year.
As can be seen in the engravings on its walls, the library was added to the complex in 750 AH/1349 CE, upon the orders of the Sultan Abu Anan Faris al-Marini (or the Marinid). The library was later expanded by the Sultan Ahmed Mansour al-Dhahabi al-Sa'di.
At the beginning of the 20th century, the library held over 1,600 manuscripts, and 400 books, as well as a collection of gifts granted to the rulers of Morocco over the centuries. It had, as well, the most significant part from the library of Sultan Mohamed bin Abdullah, which was distributed throughout various cities in Morocco.
Among the oldest manuscripts in the library is a copy of the Quran from the ninth century CE, written in Kūfic script. As well, a copy of The Muqadimmah of Ibn Khaldun can be found, signed by the historian himself, in addition to an autograph manuscript by Ibn Rushd, and a rare copy of a manuscript by the Andalusian philosopher and theologian Ibn Tufayl.
A trip down the hallowed halls of the world's oldest university and its library, in Fes, Morocco.
History recalls that the first university in the world was founded by a Muslim woman in Morocco...
Al-Qarawiyyin marked the most esteemed establishment in Morocco, and was a source of pride for the residents of Fes and the Islamic West. Throughout history, it received the generous support of Andalusian rulers. Historiographical traditions tell us that the mosque became the official mosque for sermons in 919 CE, under the rule of the Emir Ahmed bin Abi Saeed, with funding from Cordoba, from the treasury of the Umayyad Caliph Abd al-Rahman al-Nasir li-Din Allah.
Perhaps the most distinguished aspect of the complex’s dazzling history is that, with each new dynasty of power in Morocco, despite the enmities and tensions, they all competed with each other by improving and expanding Al-Qarawiyyin, without exception. Serving as an occasion for constructive competition, each ruling family ensured that its name was tied to the university.
The Almoravids decorated and embellished the complex: the Almohads (al-Muwahhidūn) rebuilt parts of it. As for the Marinids, who ruled the country between the 13th and 15th centuries, they respected the work of past generations, and "enriched the liturgical furniture", and "added several splendid mountings on the bells taken from the Christians and proceeded to undertake numerous restorations", and they created the library.
The Saʿdis, following them, "had two fountain-pavilions constructed which survive today in the ṣaḥn", interestingly, in imitation of the existing fountains in the Court of the Lions at the Alhambra of Granada. It is quite curious that no concern for utility was detected for their construction.
During the reign of the Alawites, the building was commemorated, along with its history, and the decorations added by the Almoravids eight centuries earlier were rediscovered.
Aziza al-Shawni, the architect behind the restoration of the library, recalls passing by the entrance to the library, which remained closed throughout her childhood and into adulthood. Her uncle owned a workshop in the coppersmiths’ neighborhood in the city, and her great grandfather once studied at the library in the nineteenth century, traveling a long distance from another town to receive an education there. Al-Shawnie describes her first visit to the library as “magical”.
The first room of the library is a grand reading room, furnished with tables and chairs made of old wood, as well as historic inscriptions from the different eras and dynasties that ruled over Fes since its establishment.
In the adjacent hall is a vast collection of books, manuscripts, and encyclopedias, covering an array of disciplines, from history to Quranic and Islamic studies, to Arabic literature. Entering the hall renders one speechless, as it contains a selection of the most prized works of Arab and Islamic literature and history.
One of the rooms in the library is connected to the mosque, and had four locks, each with its own key. Historically, each key was granted to a distinguished figure in the Fes community, whereby the room was used to store the most valuable manuscripts of the library, and it could not be opened unless all four figures were present.
There are plans to refurbish the library and turn this particular room into a gallery for displaying the university’s valuable collections, to be opened to visitors.
As for the books and manuscripts that are vulnerable to damage due to their age, these have been allocated their own wing in the library, and a workshop has been established to preserve and restore damaged items. The workshop includes a machine for removing dust, and a humidifying machine to prevent cracks from forming in the manuscripts, as well as an optical scanner to detect any damage.
The architects moreover focused on refurbishing the existing sewage system in the library, which was liable to cause major damage in the library due to the collection of water, and restoring the parts that were vulnerable to collapse.
“The library needs to be kept alive. I hope that it will be opened to the public soon, so that people can come and enjoy looking at these manuscripts for the first time, and make the library their second home. The value of the library is not as a touristic attraction, but as a functioning library. I want my children to be able to see this civilization,” al-Shawnie says.
The restoration of the library is being conducted under the auspices of the Moroccan King Mohammed VI, who visited it last year. It is considered among the most important attempts to rebuild a historical educational institution in the Middle East, as well as marking an affirmation of the role of women in Arab and Islamic history, as the founder of the oldest university in the world is a woman, and so is the architect who is restoring its historical glory.
Sources: Tarīkh bināʾ al-Qarawiyyīn, ʿAbd al-Hādī al-Tāzī; “Fez”, Henri Terrasse.