The imposing iron gates of the al-Qarawiyyin library have been closed to the public for so long that generations have grown up in Fez’s ancient medina not knowing what crumbling architectural fancies and priceless tomes they guard. Local architect Aziza Chaouni claims she didn’t know of the library — which, founded in 859, is the oldest surviving in the world — until she was approached to head up its restoration in 2012. It’s been a lengthy process: ribbon cutting was slated for 2016, but is now expected in late 2017.
The influences of almost every ruling dynasty since the ninth century can be seen in the architecture, and its treasures include a ninth-century Qur’an written in ornate Kufic script on camel skin.
How to do it: Until it opens its doors to the general public, local tour operator Plan-it Morocco can organise a private visit with the restoration team.
In numbers: Al-Qarawiyyin
3370: The buildings restored since 1989 by Ader-Fès in the UNESCO-listed Fez el Bali medina, including the al-Qarawiyyin library.
1158: The age of the library — founded by scholar Fatima al-Fihri, around the same time that algebra was invented.
4: The library’s contents were so valuable that the original manuscript room had four locks, and all key owners had to be there to open it.
Eat: Check out the souk-fresh tasting menu at new restaurant Nur, run by chef Najat Kaanache who cut her teeth at haute cuisine restaurants El Bulli and Noma.
Do: The Ruined Garden has launched a bread school, teaching the art of making baghrir pancakes and other specialities.
Fly: There’s no need to delay: Air Arabia has launched new direct flights from Gatwick starting at £81 return.
Booked up! Historic libraries
Bibliotheca Alexandrina, Egypt
Built in 2002, this modern complex commemorates the great Library of Alexandria that was lost in antiquity.
Library of Congress, Washington DC
The largest library in the world is the place to see George Washington’s letters and Thomas Jefferson’s rough draft of the Declaration of Independence.
Biblioteca Marciana, Venice
This 16th-century library overlooks the iconic Piazza San Marco. Check out the frescos in the Monumental Rooms.
Published in the October 2017 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)