London - The article is a tribute to the Fez-born architect, Aziza Chaouni, who fought to reopen the Qarawiyyin library to the public, the oldest library in the world.
London – The article is a tribute to the Fez-born architect, Aziza Chaouni, who fought to reopen the Qarawiyyin library to the public, the oldest library in the world.
“I sincerely hope that by opening the library doors to the public that I did justice to the visionary mission of the library’s founder and patron, Fatima al-Fihriya, who had wanted to make knowledge available to everyone in her city.”- Aziza Chaouni.
One of the many hidden pearls of the Fez medina, the Qarawiyyin mosque was first established as a university by Fatima al-Fihriya. A daughter of a wealthy merchant, she invested her inheritance on the construction of the mosque and its adjacent library, gifting a center of learning and scholarship to the Moroccan people.
Still a functioning place of learning and worship today, the mosque complex remains intact, the library however, has been undergoing numerous renovations.
As one of the oldest libraries in the world, Aziza was tasked with the renovation of the 1,200-year-old library; her work was far from easy and without problems.
Although the library was opened to the public in 839AD, a strict policy had been put in place, which restricted access to scholars only. Aziza, much like Fatima, wanted the library to be open to all.
After much battle, unfortunately made harder purely because of the fact that she is a woman, the Fez-born architect fought tirelessly and eventually was successful in her struggle. The re-launch of the library in January will see the library open its doors to everyone.
For Aziza, the project was not simply to restore the library and move onto to her next project, she wanted to once again make it a beacon of learning for everyone, not only through its architectural grandeur, but also via its significance as a place of learning.
“For the client, my job as an architect was simply to restore the library and leave it as it was found. I disagreed with this approach. I voiced my concerns, stating that restoring the library with the highest level of respect and architectural skill does not help in making the library once again a beacon of knowledge and culture for its foremost users: the inhabitants of Fes and Moroccans overall.”
She added that the project was fraught with further challenges: “I won’t hide from you that being a woman demanded that I doubled my efforts into being heard, but heard I finally was.”
For Aziza and many other inhabitants of Fes, the library is a place often passed by and not ever explored due to the security in place that prevented people from entering.
Upon her appointment as the head architect for the restoration, it was only then that Aziza was able to see the full extent of the disrepair of the library.
The library is home to over 24,000 books, 3,283 manuscripts, a copy of the Qur’an from the 9th century and many other rare calligraphic scripts, which were all exposed to crumbling surroundings. Before its restoration the library was in a state of disrepair, with rainwater pouring through the ceilings, chipped walls and the main chandelier falling from its holding.
In an interview with INDEX Design Series, who aim to unite designers and architects at their inaugural INDEX North Africa exhibition in Morocco in December, Aziza explained how she broke trend from the usual restoration projects in Morocco: “It became clear to me that the renovation of the library should go beyond just restoring the building. I took the risk to go in and restore it because of two things. One, I am trained as an engineer, so being that as well as an architect gave me real confidence. Secondly, I am naturally adventurous.”
Aziza envisioned for not just the restoration of the library, but wanted to go the causes of its misuse and disrepair and thought of ways to attract tourists and Moroccan inhabitants, alike, to the library.
After much deliberation with various Moroccan authorities: the Ministry of Culture, the Ministry of Religious Affairs and the Historic Building Commission, Aziza managed to get her plans for the restoration approved.
She said: “One of our first calls was to think how to attract visitors in and allow them the chance to experience the library’s architecture and see some of its famous manuscripts. Our strategy was to create an attractive destination. We proposed a small café and two exhibition rooms in which the library’s manuscripts would be shown to the public for the first time.
“In addition, the library had just received a gift from Kuwait of several machines to digitize the manuscripts and restore them. So we proposed to convert the basement of the reading room into a state of the art lab for book restoration and digitization.
As part of Aziza’s plans, the new manuscripts restoration lab, an exhibition room, café, modern administration offices and study rooms for visiting scholars were all installed.
Following three years of restructuring, the library will open in January to the public for the first time in more than 600 years.
“By far my biggest pride in this project is to have made it accessible to the Moroccan public, letting them discover this unique space, its history as well as its beautiful centuries old architecture and manuscripts,” she said.