The Delicate Task Of Restoring One Of The World's Oldest Libraries | KUOW News and Information

The Delicate Task Of Restoring One Of The World's Oldest Libraries

May 22, 2016
Originally published on May 21, 2016 2:20 pm

The copper craft makers in Seffarin Square in the historic district of Fez, Morocco, bang out designs on platters and shape copper pots to a rhythm.

Called the medina, neighborhood streets lined with domes and archways take you back through the history of the dynasties and occupiers that ruled Morocco from the 9th century on. At the center of the square is the Qarawiyyin Library, founded more than a millennium ago.

We've heard much recently about the destruction of grand historical sites in places like Syria and Iraq, where war and ISIS wreak havoc on the present and the past. But this library has been lovingly restored to protect ancient manuscripts by some of the greatest Islamic thinkers.

It's part of what the United Nations calls the oldest operating educational institute in the world. The complex started as a mosque in the 9th century and expanded to include a university and library in the 10th century. It's defined by beautiful courtyards centered around fountains.

Inside the library are ornately carved wooden window frames and archways, colorful ceramic tile designs on the floors and elegant Arabic calligraphy engraved in the walls. The high ceilings in the reading room are adorned with gold chandeliers.

"There is a big restoration because there was a need for the building and the manuscripts to be preserved," said Abdullah al-Henda, part of the restoration team that's been working on the restoration since 2012. "There were problems of infiltration, of sewage, degradation of walls, some cracks in different places in the library."

The library holds some 4,000 manuscripts: Qurans that date back to the 9th century, the earliest collection of Islamic hadiths — the words and actions of Islam's prophet Mohammed — and an original copy of the great Muslim thinker and historian Ibn Khaldun's Muqaddimah.

And Henda points out the library connected the east and the west.

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

When the library opened, it created a space for non-Muslims and Muslims to exchange ideas. In the 10th century, Pope Sylvester II, known as a prolific scholar, was one of the visitors.

And notably it was all made possible because of a woman, Fatima al-Fihri. She was the pious daughter of a wealthy merchant who provided the money to found the mosque, the university and the library.

That doesn't surprise Henda.

"Ladies are half of society," he said. "She was descended from a rich family, she has the capacity, she has the ability, the money to do it and the will."

It's a small reminder of the importance of women in the history of Islam. And it's echoed in the fact that a Canadian-Moroccan woman, architect Aziza Chaouni, led the restoration.

Now the library has a new gutter system and solar panels. Air conditioner units are tucked behind wooden carvings that match the aesthetic. And finally, the delicate manuscripts are protected in a temperature- and humidity-controlled room with a modern security system.

Henda says the library, which will reopen officially in May, is more than just a building.

"We have to preserve it. We have to restore it because it's our identity," he said. "It's our archives. It's our memory."

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

We have one more story from overseas for you. Over the years, we've seen many images from the Mideast showing ISIS destroying antiquities, erasing emblems of the past. But Morocco is taking a step to preserve the region's history and heritage.

One of the world's oldest libraries has been restored to protect the ancient manuscripts menu of great Islamic philosophers and thinkers. The library dates back a thousand years and was founded by woman. NPR's Leila Fadel has this report.

LEILA FADEL, BYLINE: The copper craft makers in Seffarin Square in the historic district city of Fez, bang out designs on platters and shape copper pots to a rhythm. Called the medina, this neighborhood's streets, lined with domes and archways, take you back through the history of the dynasties and occupiers that ruled Morocco from the 9th century on. At the center of the square is Qarawiyyin Library.

And soon it will be open to the public after a restoration. Part of what the U.N. calls the oldest operating educational institution in the world, the complex started as a mosque in the 9th century and expanded to include a university and library in the 10th century. It's defined by beautiful courtyard centered around fountains.

I wasn't allowed to record inside the library because Morocco's King Mohammed the VI had yet to inaugurate the complex. But on a walk-through, I passed the ornately-carved wooden window frames and archways, colorful ceramic tile designs and elegant Arabic calligraphy engravings. Outside, we spoke to architect Abdullah al-Henda, part of the restoration team.

ABDULLAH AL-HENDA: There is a big restoration because there has been a need for the building and for the manuscripts to be preserved.

FADEL: He says the library holds some 4,000 manuscripts, Qurans that date back to the 9th century, the earliest collection of Islamic Hadiths - that is, the words and actions of Islam's Prophet Muhammad and an original copy of the great Muslim thinker and historian Ibn Khaldun's Muqaddimah - just to name a few of the present and fragile document the library contains.

And Henda points out the library connected the East and the West.

AL-HENDA: It was considered a bridge of knowledge of research between Africa, between Middle East and Europe.

FADEL: When the library opened, it created a space for non-Muslims and Muslims to exchange ideas. Tenth-century Christian scholar Pope Sylvester the II was one of the visitors. And notably, it was all made possible because of a woman, Fatima al-Fihri.

She was the daughter of a wealthy merchant, who provided the money to found the mosque, the university and the library. Again, al-Henda.

AL-HENDA: A lady is half our society. I mean, I am not surprised by the fact that a lady founded a mosque and founded a university. It's normal. She was descended from a rich family. She has the capacity. She has the ability, the money to do it and the will.

FADEL: It's a small reminder of the importance of women in the history of Islam. And it's echoed in the fact that a Canadian-Moroccan woman, Aziza Chaouni, led the new restoration. It began in 2012.

Now, the library has a new gutter system, solar panels. Air-Conditioner units are tucked behind the wooden carvings that match the aesthetic. And the manuscripts are in a temperature and humidity-controlled room with a modern security system. Henda says the library is more than just a building.

AL-HENDA: We have to preserve it. We have to restore it because it's our identity. It's a big part of our identity. It's our archives. And it's our - I mean, it's our memory.

FADEL: The doors will open in May. Leila Fadel, NPR News, Fez. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.