Monday, September 19, 2016

Kareem Shaheen - World's oldest library reopens in Fez: 'You can hurt us, but you can't hurt the books'

The caretaker stares at the wrought iron door and its four ancient locks with a gleam in his eyes. Outside, the Moroccan sun shines down upon the ornate coloured tiles of Khizanat al-Qarawiyyin, located in the old medina of Fez. This, it is widely believed, is the oldest library in the world – and soon it will be open to the general public again. “It was like healing wounds,” says Aziza Chaouni, a Fez native and the architect tasked with restoring the great library.

The iron door is found along a corridor that once linked the library with the neighbouring Qarawiyyin Mosque – the two centres of learning and cultural life in old Fez. Inside it were kept the most prized tomes in the collection; works of such immense import that each of the four locks had separate keys held with four different individuals, all of whom had to be present for the door to be opened.

The restored library boasts a new sewerage and underground canal system to drain away the moisture that had threatened to destroy many of its prized manuscripts – plus an elaborate lab to treat, preserve and digitise the oldest texts. The collection of advanced machinery includes digital scanners that identify minuscule holes in the ancient paper rolls, and a preservative machine which treats the manuscripts with a liquid that moistens them enough to prevent cracking.

A special room with strict security and temperature and humidity controls houses the most ancient works. The most precious is a ninth-century copy of the Qur’an, written in ornate Kufic script on camel skin. The must of old books permeates the reading room, and the copies feel fragile and dusty, wearied by years of disuse. Some are wrapped up to prevent them disintegrating in your hands.
“The people who work here jealously guard the books,” says one of the caretakers. “You can hurt us, but you cannot hurt the books.”

The library’s restoration comes at a time when extremists are rampaging the region’s heritage. Across Syria and Iraq, the militants of the Islamic State have carried out cultural atrocities that include ransacking the great library of Mosul, burning thousands of manuscripts, bulldozing ancient Assyrian cities like Nimrud and Hatra in Iraq, blowing up the Temple of Bel in Palmyra and sacking the oasis city’s museum, in addition to destroying tombs and mausoleums of Shia and Christian saints.

Those troubles seem a world away in Morocco, which managed to remain unscathed by the tumult that has gripped the region and brought down venerable nation states. The king introduced reforms that placated enough of the middle class without devolving too much power to the Islamist-dominated parliament, and peace was largely restored after a series of protests in early 2011.
In 2012, the ministry of culture, which manages the Qarawiyyin library and university, asked Chaouni to assess the library, and she was pleasantly surprised when her architecture firm was awarded the contract, in a field traditionally seen as a man’s province.

The Qarawiyyin library was also founded by a woman. In the ninth century, Fatima al-Fihri, the daughter of a wealthy merchant from Tunisia’s Kairouan, arrived in Fez and began laying the groundwork for a complex that would include the library, the Qarawiyyin Mosque, and Qarawiyyin University, the oldest higher education institution in the world – with alumni including the Jewish philosopher Moses Maimonides, the great Muslim historian Ibn Khaldun, and the Andalusian diplomat Leo Africanus… read more:

Comment: EmKitto  Guardian Pick
I don't think this counts as the World's oldest library. If it has to have 'reopened', then it hasn't been continuously functional. This is technically a 're-founding'. If, then, we are counting libraries merely by their founding date and not by their running dates, then we have to count historical libraries, like Alexandria, or even older, the great libraries of ancient China or Egypt.

If we are going by oldest and longest running, then the title of 'oldest library in the world' actually goes to the library of St. Catherine's Monastery in Sinai (Egypt), which was built between 548 and 565, and hasn't closed since. The oldest continuously operating library for academics and students is at one of the colleges in Oxford. It has been open continuously since 1276.

Then there's the problem of what counts as a library. European monasteries, some founded before 700, had 'collections' of books that were accessible to scholars, some old, some hand-made copies of religious and philosophical texts. For example, the Lindisfarne gospels date from around 715, and were by no means unique at the time. Many of those collections continued to stay in the hands of monasteries well into the late middle ages and beyond, without having the technical classification as 'libraries'. There's also the massive depositories of Buddhist texts, many thousands of years old, and the early collections of christian texts in Africa.

Essentially, this is a great project, and the library is obviously important and beautiful. But to claim it's the oldest library in the world is false.