World’s Oldest Library Founded by a Woman and Restored by a Woman

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The renovation of the world’s oldest library, Al-Qarawiyyin library, is an account of much more than physical improvements and preservation of ancient documents – it is also the story of two women from different eras being connected by the value of education for the public.

When asked about how she felt when she was asked to lead the restoration of Al-Qarawiyyin library in 2012, Aziza Chaouni said she felt excited to lead the project. An architect who works in Canada and Morocco, Aziza explained that she has a personal connection with the oldest functioning library in the world located in Fez, Morocco. Her great grandfather was a student at Al-Qarawiyyin University. During her childhood, the library was not open to the public and now she said she had a chance to make it available to her own son and the public once again through her restoration project.

Al-Qarawiyyin library was founded by a woman named Fatima al-Fehri in 850 C.E. After losing her father, Fatima decided to donate the whole of her inheritance to create the library. Al-Qarawiyyin library has around 5,600 titles that are around 12 centuries old, and 4,000 of which are considered rare items. A place of learning and worship with an attached mosque, Al-Qarawiyyin library was a hub for intellectualism for hundreds of years following in founding in 859 C.E.

Now the world’s oldest functioning library is open to the public again and with Aziza’s renovations, manuscripts, books, and other materials are anticipated to be preserved well. Upon reflecting on this project, Aziza said that she felt it was something very special as the library was originally founded by a woman and then restored by another woman centuries later. She added that this was an exceptional project as women are usually not architects in Morocco and she, like her predecessor Fatima, broke stereotypes and crossed gender-bound boundaries through this work. Fatima al-Fehri and Aziza Chaouni’s story of the first library’s creation and subsequent restoration centuries later is an inspiration to many and for generations to come.

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