Most people, when asked where the oldest university still operating is, would guess Oxford or Cambridge in the UK. The correct answer, however, is the University of Al Quaraouiyine in Fez, founded in A.D. 861, 200 years before either Oxford or Cambridge.
The tale of how this university was founded is a fascinating one. The story starts when Fatima al-Fihri and her family migrated from Karaouine, Tunisia, to Fez. Her father found success as a merchant in the city and Fatima married.
The al-Fihri family had made a happy life for themselves in Morocco. However, her husband, father, and brother all died in a short period of time, leaving just Fatima and her sister behind.
They left the two women with a sizeable inheritance though, and Fatima, a devout Muslim, decided to give back to the community.
Fatima noticed that the mosques of Fez were not large enough to accommodate the city’s growing population, so she took it upon herself to build a grand mosque, with a madrassa (school) attached. When construction began during Ramadan in A.D. 859, she vowed to fast until her dream was realized.
She could not have imagined how long her legacy would last. To this day, students aged 13-30 attend the school to gain both high school-level diplomas and university degrees. Before attending the school, students must have memorized the whole Qur’an as well as several other texts.
Although the university is not open for non-Muslims to visit, many go just to look through the giant gate at the entrance, which offers a good look into the world’s oldest university.