9 of the Arab world’s most beautiful libraries

Every book lover should visit these.


By Amna Alharmoodi

Exterior view of Qasr Al Watan. Image courtesy of Qasr Al Watan.

The architectural beauty in the Arab world is not limited to its grand mosques or glimmering glass buildings. The region’s texts of its rich culture and history can only inhabit buildings of equal grandeur. More than a place with flickering lights and to hold a cram session before the big final, here are nine of the most beautiful libraries of the Arab world, many filled with as much history as they have books.

Bibliotheca Alexandrina

The circular exterior of the Bibliotheca Alexandrina. Image: Bibiliotheca Alexandrina website.

This library is located in Alexandria, Egypt. It opened in 2002 and houses eight million books, four museums and a planetarium, amongst other state of the art facilities. It is not only a library that is open to the public, but is also as a modern day homage to the ancient Library of Alexandria. Its best architectural features are its vertical skylights, which allow natural sunlight to illuminate the halls while keeping the precious books protected, and the iconic circular exterior of its main building. Its stunning location along the coast and its enchanting contemporary form are what make the Bibliotheca amongst the most beautiful libraries in the Arab world.

The interior of the Bibliotheca Alexandrina. Image: Bibiliotheca Alexandrina website.

Qasr Al Watan Library

The Qasr Al Watan Library. Image courtesy of Qasr Al Watan.

This library is located in the majestic Qasr Al Watan in Abu Dhabi, the United Arab Emirates. The Qasr is a presidential palace that is now open to the public. Its architecture was inspired by the Islamic architecture, and it looks similar to mosques with its dome structures, arches and ornate tile work . The library, which overlooks the Qasr’s enchanting gardens and fountains, houses over 4,000 titles that have been thoughtfully selected, and that range from  historical memoirs and rare tests to books about the UAE’s history, archeology, culture and the arts. The library itself contains shelves that stretch from the floor to the ceiling, which gives the sense that one has entered into the gateway of knowledge.

Al-Qarawiyyin Library

Pattern design element of al-Qarawiyyin Mosque and University in Fez, Morocco. Image: Shutterstock.

This library in Fez, Morocco is situated within the al-Qarawiyyin Mosque and University complex, which was built by Fatima al-Fihri in 859 AD. Said to be the world’s oldest continuously operating library, it houses 4,000 rare texts and manuscripts, including a 9th C version of the Holy Quran. Due to natural forces and rot formation, and because of indoor flooding due to heavy rainfall, the structure of the building received a face lift in 2012 but has since been open to the public. With its open spaces and mesmerizing minuscule tiles in white, orange, green and blue, it is one of  the most beautiful libraries in the Arab world that embodies its history and preserves it.

The al-Qarawiyyin Library in Fez, Morocco is situated within the al-Qarawiyyin Mosque and University complex. Image: Shutterstock.

The Library at Ithraa

Exterior view of the King Abdulaziz Center for World Culture (Ithra) . Image courtesy of Ithraa.

This library is located in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, and is part of the King Abdulaziz Center for World Culture (Ithra). The cultural center, an initiative of Saudi Aramco, opened its doors in 2018 and aims  to promote talent and empower human development within the region through its multidimensional activities and facilities, which include a performance arts theater, a cinema, a museum, but most importantly, a library. The four-storey library has an open access to hundreds of thousands of books, all sectioned by floors. The second floor is dedicated to books for children and young adults, the third houses a cafe for bookworms, the fourth floor holds non-fiction books and the fifth floor is composed of a quiet study area and houses books on history, geography and more.

The interior of the King Abdulaziz Center for World Culture (Ithra). Image: Snøhetta website.

The architecture of the building is iconic; it was designed (by Snøhetta, the same Norwegian firm that designed the Bibliotheca Alexandrina) as a set of stacked stones to symbolize unity. It is also an expression of time: the tower represents the future, the ground floor represents the present and the underground preserves as well as represents the past.

Interior view of the library at the King Abdulaziz Center for World Culture (Ithra). Image: Shutterstock.

The House of Wisdom Library

This two-storey, high-tech library is located in Sharjah, UAE and opened its doors for the first time last December. Inspired by the original House of Wisdom in Baghdad, the building overlooks two gardens: a cactus garden and Japanese style garden. At the center of the gardens is a white swirling sculpture called “The Scroll”, which was designed by British artist Gerry Judah, and which symbolizes the ancient Arabic scroll. The library’s large roof and windows on all sides provides a beautiful view of the greenery and allows for light to enter, symbolizing clarity and lightness. The library houses 105,000 books, and its facilities include exhibition areas, student pods and a fast paced printer that can print and bind a book in the span of minutes, as well as 3D printers.

The Scroll, located in the House of Wisdom’s garden. Image: Shutterstock.

The Children’s Public Library

Opened in 2017, this library in Oman’s capital city, Muscat, is dedicated only to children. With a view of Oman’s beaches and mighty mountains, this multi-storied library’s interior is colorful and vibrant, and is stocked with beanie bags and other fun furniture, making it the perfect haven for children from the ages of 3 to 17 to enjoy. The library offers children’s books in Arabic and English in a variety of genres, as well as computers and play areas.

The Lebanese National Library

Exterior of the National Lebanese Library. Image: National Lebanese Library.

Established in the beginning of the 20th C, this library in Beirut that is dedicated to preserving Lebanese and Lebanon related works is over a century old. After moving locations due to the damage caused by Lebanese Civil War, it is now housed in a renovated Ottoman Era building in Sanayeh, which previously housed a hospital, a school and the Lebanese University’s faculty of law at different points in history. The library is home to over 300,000 titles, including rare books, periodicals in a variety of languages, government documents, old maps and more. In addition to its imposing exterior and historical stone arches, perhaps the most beautiful feature of the library is the atrium, which is covered by a glass wall on one end, allowing readers to soak in the sun as they read and conduct research.

Interior of the National Lebanese Library. Image: National Lebanese Library.

Al Khalifiyah Public Library

Exterior and interior views of Al Khalifiyah Public Library in Bahrain. Images: Bahrain Authority for Culture and Antiquities on Instagram.

Al Khalifiyah Public Library is one of the oldest public libraries in Bahrain. Originally built in 1954, it underwent a reconstruction in recent years and reopened its doors to the public in 2016. The library, which is situated in the historical center of Muharraq, contains a reading room and research center, and caters to the youth of Muharraq.

The Mohammed bin Rashid Library

Mohammed bin Rashid Library. Image: Dubai Municipality website.

Yet to open, this library promises to become a cultural center for the MENA region , housing over four million books, which will be shelved across the building’s nine floors. Situated on the banks of the UAE’s Dubai Creek in Al Jaddaf, the architectural concept of the building is based on “The Rehl,” Arabic for the traditional lectern that books—most notably the Holy Quran— are set on. The library’s facilities will include an amphitheater, classrooms, conference rooms, cafes and exhibition areas in addition to specialized libraries such as the Emirates Library, Media and Arts Library and the Business Library.

Amna Alharmoodi is an Emirati writer passionate about writing the hidden Emirati stories. She won second place in Abu Dhabi Music and Arts Foundation (ADMAF) Annual Creativity Award in 2019 for her short story “Transit”, which she co-wrote. She has been published in the NYU Abu Dhabi literary magazine, Airport Road, the NYU literary journal, Brio and the Paris-based literary magazine Postscript. 

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