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Oldest library in world to reopen in Fez

With a story of its own that dates back centuries, the Qarawiyyin library in Morocco is close to reopening its doors, allowing visitors to finally experience a ninth-century masterpiece. Widely regarded as the world’s oldest library, new additions include everything from extra security to efforts to protect the library’s most important manuscripts for centuries to come.

Oldest library in world to reopen in Fez

Closed off from public viewing for years, visitors to Morocco will soon be able to experience for themselves a story centuries in the making. The Qarawiyyin library, which dates back to the ninth-century, is expected to reopen its doors by sometime later this year.

Writer Kareem Shaheen recounts the years long restoration process in an article published on The Guardian. According to the author the repairs were critically necessary, as some of the library’s most important manuscripts faced destruction due to things like moisture in the air. In response, crews have been constructing a new underground canal system and sewerage.

As well, a lab is being put in place to help preserve and treat some of the oldest documents. New advanced methods include a machine that preserves old manuscripts with enough liquid to prevent cracking plus digital scanners that can pinpoint even the smallest holes in centuries-old paper rolls.

Some of the texts are more worn than others, wrapped to keep them from virtually disintegrating when touched. Perhaps the most delicate and cherished is a copy of the Qur’an written in decorative Kufic upon camel skin that dates back to the ninth-century. A Specialized room with controlled humidity, temperature and security houses it and other ancient works.

Found in the old medina of Fez, the library itself is guarded behind an iron door with four locks, all of which require separate keys and separate people to open it up. According to a caretaker:

“The people who work here jealously guard the books. You can hurt us, but you cannot hurt the books.”

While the author points out other nations have seen their cultural heritage ransacked and destroyed by extremists, Morocco has not. Four years ago an architecture firm headed by a woman earned the contract to carry out the repairs, a point made as the library was also founded by a wealthy merchant’s daughter centuries ago. As architect Aziza Chaouni explains, the process of restoration has been painfully slow for good reason:

“It was like healing wounds.”

The article also recounts Chaouni’s memories of her own childhood, including the role the library played in the life of her ancestors. She remembers visiting her great-uncle the coppersmith in a nearby workshop, often wondering what was behind the massive closed door. She has great hope for the future:

“I hope it will open soon, and the pubic 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.”

While engineers have tried to preserve as much of the old woodwork as possible they are now restoring some of it. Crews have also added a chandelier to the tall ceiling of the reading room. The library was supposed to open this past summer but the new target date has been pushed back until sometime later this year. While there’s no specific date it’s expected that King Mohammad VI will be there for the reopening of the building.

The old library is considered just one part of restoring Fez to the cultural and spiritual capital it once was. As the old medina has stood the test of time, the younger generation is beginning to rediscover the area with events like festivals, while a planned exhibition in the future is also hoped to present to the public some of the library’s most precious collections.

Planners like Chaouni know that the library needs to showcase the past but also become a part of the future. Additionally, she has plans for the Fez River, once a treasure of the city but eventually forgotten. The architect wants to bring the river back to life, just like she is remaking the library.

That’s good news for residents and visitors alike, as Fez has become a highly sought-after tourist destination in recent years. Renowned for its old-world experience, the city is filled with unique winding streets lined by shops and souks, delectable choices in Moroccan cuisine, interesting museums and fantastic atmosphere.

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