Rabat – As the world’s oldest library, Al-Qarawiyyin, is home to some of humanity’s most priceless manuscripts. As part of its “Inside Africa” series, CNN has produced a seven-minute video of the library, showcasing its history and the restoration efforts now underway.
From the beginning of its construction in the 14th century, the Al-Qarawiyyin Library, in the heart of historic Fez, was destined to become a critical hub of learning for scholars through the ages.
The pride with which the library’s curator, Abdelfattah Bougchouf, speaks of historic structure is obvious. Housing priceless manuscripts such as a 9th century Quran, a 12th century astronomy text and a 14th century tome on jurisprudence, the value of the edifice quickly becomes apparent.
The curator reverently leafs through one of the first biographies of Mohammed as he speaks of the library’s purpose as a centre for knowledge for scholars of the past, present and future. “Our duty,” he says, “is to look after it for humanity and future generations.”
In 2012, it became clear that the building was in urgent need of restorative work to save it from the ravages of constant water damage. With no blueprints to work from, architects like Lamiss Ben El Haj, had their work cut out for them. Still, the excitement of working on such an historical project was an irresistible lure.
Plans were drawn up from scratch and soon engineers were digging a new sewer system to permanently funnel the library’s arch enemy, water, away from its foundation. Major restructuring of the walls was needed to provide the appropriate support for the foundation.
Speaking of the work that faced them, Ben El Haj, stressed the importance of using original materials and techniques wherever possible. “When we restore we should bring it back like it was.” In keeping with that philosophy, local craftsmen were brought in to apply their time-honoured skills to detail work, evidenced by the handwrought copper chandelier in one of the library’s reading rooms.
Stairs were painstakingly reconstructed matching materials and colours against the original work. When the famous green roof tiles needed replacing they were removed one at a time and exchanged for exact replicas.
Critical innovations were also made part of the restoration. A temperature-controlled room was constructed to house the Al-Qarawiyyin’s most priceless manuscripts. A specially constructed area in the basement was also built where the maintenance of the library’s more fragile pieces will be completed. The latest in high-tech preservation equipment has been installed, including facilities for digitizing ancient texts to minimize their handling.
Recently reopened to the public, the restorative labour of love has restored Al-Qarawiyyin to, as the narrator says, its deserving place as the “Jewel in the Crown of the Medina’s restoration.” As the video concludes, a smiling Bougchouf reflects on an ancient Moroccan proverb, “Man’s best friend is a book.”