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Design

The Historic Library That Almost Banned Visitors

After an intricate restoration and battle with the government, Morocco’s al-Qarawiyyin Library will soon welcome the public.
The reading room of the al-Qarawiyyin Library has been carefully renovated.
The reading room of the al-Qarawiyyin Library has been carefully renovated.Samia Errazouki/AP

The medina, or old city, of Fez, Morocco, is the kind of place a visitor never forgets. A well-preserved medieval metropolis that is pedestrian-only, it’s easy to become lost in streets that get narrower and narrower as you turn off the main thoroughfares—until you’re in a tiny passageway whose walls you can touch on either side with outstretched hands. Weavers, coppersmiths, and potters toil in small shops, using methods similar to generations before them.

All this makes it easy to think of Fez as a city where “time has stood still,” a place not where contemporary people live contemporary lives, but an unchanging representation of history. This problem was in the mind of the Fez-born architect Aziza Chaouni when the Moroccan government asked her to restore the city’s al-Qarawiyyin Library, thought to be the oldest library in the world. Chaouni envisioned making the renovated structure a place where past and present meet, whereas government officials were keen to keep it static and sequestered from the public.