Not only is Africa home to the world’s oldest continuously functioning library, this remarkable institution was also founded by a Muslim woman – challenging commonly held assumptions about the contribution of women in Muslim civilisation.

Founded in 859, the al-Qarawiyyin Library in Fez, Morocco, is the first degree-awarding educational institution in the world according to UNESCO and Guinness World Records. Ancient manuscripts dating back as far as 12 centuries can be found here.

The al-Qarawiyyin, which includes a mosque, library, and university, was founded by Fatima El-Fihriya, the daughter of a rich immigrant from al-Qayrawan (Tunisia today).

Well educated and devout, she vowed to spend her entire inheritance on building a mosque and knowledge centre for her community. Since then it has produced a high-profile role call of alumni and played a leading role in the transfer of knowledge between Muslims and Europeans.

As one can imagine, the 1 157-year-old library had fallen into disrepair and had to be closed to the public for quite some time, though scholars still had access to volumes covering centuries of knowledge in fields ranging from theology to law, grammar to astronomy.

In 2012 the Moroccan Ministry of Culture commissioned architect Aziza Chaouni to restore the buildings and to open the library as a new public space.This posed an enormous challenge: how to bring the ancient institute of learning into the modern era while respecting its authenticity. Nevertheless, Chaouni rose to the occasion.

“There had to be a fine balance between keeping the original spaces, addressing the needs of current users, including students, researchers and visitors, and integrating new sustainable technologies — solar panels, water collection for garden irrigation, and so on,” she told Karen Eng, a contributing writer to, during an interview.

Chaouni’s achievement means the public can look forward to wandering through a complex that includes a reading room, book stacks, a conference room, a manuscript restoration laboratory, and a rare books collection — along with new administrative offices and a café – when the library reopens in May 2016.So there you have it – an incredible public facility right here in Africa, created by one of our women and restored by one of our women.