MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
We have one more story from overseas for you. Over the years, we've seen many images from the Mideast showing ISIS destroying antiquities, erasing emblems of the past. But Morocco is taking a step to preserve the region's history and heritage.
One of the world's oldest libraries has been restored to protect the ancient manuscripts menu of great Islamic philosophers and thinkers. The library dates back a thousand years and was founded by woman. NPR's Leila Fadel has this report.
LEILA FADEL, BYLINE: The copper craft makers in Seffarin Square in the historic district city of Fez, bang out designs on platters and shape copper pots to a rhythm. Called the medina, this neighborhood's streets, lined with domes and archways, take you back through the history of the dynasties and occupiers that ruled Morocco from the 9th century on. At the center of the square is Qarawiyyin Library.
And soon it will be open to the public after a restoration. Part of what the U.N. calls the oldest operating educational institution in the world, the complex started as a mosque in the 9th century and expanded to include a university and library in the 10th century. It's defined by beautiful courtyard centered around fountains.
I wasn't allowed to record inside the library because Morocco's King Mohammed the VI had yet to inaugurate the complex. But on a walk-through, I passed the ornately-carved wooden window frames and archways, colorful ceramic tile designs and elegant Arabic calligraphy engravings. Outside, we spoke to architect Abdullah al-Henda, part of the restoration team.
ABDULLAH AL-HENDA: There is a big restoration because there has been a need for the building and for the manuscripts to be preserved.
FADEL: He says the library holds some 4,000 manuscripts, Qurans that date back to the 9th century, the earliest collection of Islamic Hadiths - that is, the words and actions of Islam's Prophet Muhammad and an original copy of the great Muslim thinker and historian Ibn Khaldun's Muqaddimah - just to name a few of the present and fragile document the library contains.
And Henda points out the library connected the East and the West.
AL-HENDA: It was considered a bridge of knowledge of research between Africa, between Middle East and Europe.
FADEL: When the library opened, it created a space for non-Muslims and Muslims to exchange ideas. Tenth-century Christian scholar Pope Sylvester the II was one of the visitors. And notably, it was all made possible because of a woman, Fatima al-Fihri.
She was the daughter of a wealthy merchant, who provided the money to found the mosque, the university and the library. Again, al-Henda.
AL-HENDA: A lady is half our society. I mean, I am not surprised by the fact that a lady founded a mosque and founded a university. It's normal. She was descended from a rich family. She has the capacity. She has the ability, the money to do it and the will.
FADEL: It's a small reminder of the importance of women in the history of Islam. And it's echoed in the fact that a Canadian-Moroccan woman, Aziza Chaouni, led the new restoration. It began in 2012.
Now, the library has a new gutter system, solar panels. Air-Conditioner units are tucked behind the wooden carvings that match the aesthetic. And the manuscripts are in a temperature and humidity-controlled room with a modern security system. Henda says the library is more than just a building.
AL-HENDA: We have to preserve it. We have to restore it because it's our identity. It's a big part of our identity. It's our archives. And it's our - I mean, it's our memory.
FADEL: The doors will open in May. Leila Fadel, NPR News, Fez.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.