The World’s Oldest Working Library

The city of Fez in Morocco is the second oldest in the world after Jerusalem. The entire city is a UNESCO site. There are three souks here. The one I visited was the Fez el Bali, a snake-like labyrinth of alleyways, some dark with filtered light, others open to the sky, twisting through open courtyards and then back into covered alleys. In addition to being the shopping mall of the medina, this souk also houses several historic sites. 

Fez lays claim to the first psychiatric and surgical hospitals in the world, as well as Morocco’s first animal shelter and veterinary hospital, founded by an American woman in 1926. It also houses the oldest working library in the world.

The Qarawiyyin Library was founded in 859 and houses 4,000 rare books and manuscripts. It remains the oldest working library in the world, 200 years older than its European counterparts. Founded by a woman, the library was restored about 10 years ago by another woman, Canadian-Moroccan architect Aziza Chaouni. The library was originally attached to a university, more appropriately referred to as a madrasa – a school for Koranic studies. The madrasa was later moved to another part this souk and doubles as a mosque.

The library and madrasa were founded by Fatima al-Fihri (800-880), a Muslim woman who, after the death of her husband and her father, used her inheritance to build a mosque and madrasa for her community. She and her sister Maryam were well-educated, and both went on to found mosques in Fez. Fatima named her complex Al-Karaouine, after the Tunisian city that her family originated from.

Entering the library, you walk into an airy, white reading room with high ceilings and what might be teakwood tables and chairs. There is beautiful wooden fretwork that separates the reading room from the book stacks, and I noticed that the design of the fretwork mirrored the plasterwork on the outside of the Hassan II Mosque in Casablanca. I was unhappy to not be able to touch the books, but poked my camera through the fretwork to get some photos.

White reading room
PHOTOGRAPH BY Heather Daveno
Wooden Fretwork
PHOTOGRAPH BY Heather Daveno

Here is a more in-depth study of the Qarawiyyin Library, the famous scholars who taught there, and a bit about its restoration. The library itself is open by appointment, but there is a public wing with an exhibition room (which might have been under construction when I was there in 2017).

The madrasa originally focused on religious instruction and Qu’ran memorization, but later expanded into Arabic grammar, music, Sufism, medicine, and astronomy. Both men and women could study there. It would evolve into a spiritual and educational center in the Muslim world. In 1947 the school was integrated into the Moroccan state education system; in 1957 physics, chemistry, and foreign languages were introduced; in 1963 it joined the modern state university system; and in 1965 it was officially renamed “University of al-Karaouine.” Non-Muslims are not allowed to enter mosques in Morocco, but you can see the courtyard of the madrasa from the inside of the souk.

Mosque
PHOTOGRAPH BY Heather Daveno

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Heather Daveno

Heather Daveno is from Seattle, Washington, where she works as an office manager by day and a self taught hatmaker by night. She spent most of her pandemic lockdown in 2020-2021 creating 800 masks for the Masks4Millions project.

In a normal year, her travels inspire her hats, which she handcrafts from reclaimed textiles and found objects. You can find her hats and masks for sale at August Phoenix Hats. She is currently reissuing her original journals as “Director’s Cuts” with expanded text and previously unpublished photos, which you can read for free at Daveno Travels.