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The world's oldest centre of learning
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(Credit: Chris Griffiths)
Since the 9th Century, the old Fez medina has drawn scholars, imams and intellectuals to pass through its doors in hope of discovering what ancient knowledge the city holds.
(Credit: Thomas Buttery)

(Credit: Thomas Buttery)

This labyrinth of interconnecting alleyways and streets, fountains, souks and courtyards has remained much the same since the city's rapid expansion during the Marinid dynasty in the 13th and 14th Centuries.

(Credit: Chris Griffiths)

(Credit: Chris Griffiths)

Although dilapidated ruins of once-grand riad homes can be found around almost every corner, the Moroccan government has recently been investing more money into restoring the medina, which today is considered one of the best-preserved historical towns in the Arab-Muslim world. It is also considered to be one of the world’s largest car-free urban areas, where donkeys and carts are the main modes of transporting goods through the narrow, hilly streets.

A short walk around the medina reveals intricately carved Islamic calligraphy and mesmerising zellige mosaics – individually chiselled tiles placed in geometric patterns – that line the walls of mosques, Koranic schools and mausoleums. However, one building, which sits in the medina’s heart, is particularly intriguing to visitors.

(Credit: Thomas Buttery)

(Credit: Thomas Buttery)

Established at the very beginnings of Morocco’s oldest imperial city, the University of Al-Karaouine (also written as Al-Quaraouiyine and Al-Qarawiyyin) was founded in 859 and is considered by Unesco and the Guinness Book of World Records to be the oldest continually operating university in the world.

(Credit: Chris Griffiths)

(Credit: Chris Griffiths)

Other historical and archaeological sites like ancient India’s Taxila and Nalanda universities may date back further, and ancient Sumerian societies first began incorporating scribal schools (Eduba) just after 3500BC, but Al-Karaouine proudly holds the world record as it has continually offered education since its founding. It is also the first degree-granting educational institution in the world.

Located in the heart of the old city, the complex is composed of a mosque, university and library, and is connected to the labyrinth of interconnecting streets and alleyways on all four sides. Its ceramic green tiled roofs take centre stage over Fez’s urban sprawl from any viewpoint over the city. 

The world's oldest centre of learning
(Credit: Chris Griffiths)

(Credit: Chris Griffiths)

The story of how the institution came into existence is perhaps even more remarkable than its architecture. In the early to mid-9th Century, when Fez was first beginning to establish itself as a bustling metropolis, Fatima al-Fihri – a migrant from the city of Kairouan (in modern day Tunisia) – settled and married in Fez along with her sister Mariam. After their father passed away, the sisters decided to use the fortune they inherited to give back to their newfound community by creating the Al-Karaouine Mosque and University complex.

Mariam used much of her share of the inheritance to build the central Andalusian Mosque – its ornamentally decorated interior can accommodate up to 20,000 people at prayer – while all of Fatima’s money, time and energy went into providing an adjoining place of education for the people of Fez. Fatima was so devoted to the cause that she even fasted during the construction of the complex (some sources say for up to 18 years).

(Credit: Chris Griffiths)

(Credit: Chris Griffiths)

The mosque is off limits to non-Muslims, so most tourists can only seek glimpses of the structure’s grand courtyard – and its intricate, hand-painted carvings, arches and water fountains – through the large doors on all four sides. Rooftop terraces within the medina serve as vantage points, allowing for breathtaking views over the mosque and its white minaret that sends out the call to prayer across the town.

From ground level, the true shape and structure of the complex is hidden, where buildings are stacked so close together that roofs touch and crossover above the alleyways. But the trail of grand doorways and wooden walls help visitors define its outline.

(Credit: Chris Griffiths)

(Credit: Chris Griffiths)

The mosque is filled with visual details like the elaborately decorated ceiling in the main entrance (pictured). The building’s interior as it appears today was largely shaped by the Almoravid dynasty, which expanded the mosque and prayer halls during the 12th Century.

Additional changes continued to take place throughout subsequent centuries. The Almohad dynasty – which took control of large areas of Morocco and the southern regions of Spain after its rise over the Almoravids in the 12th Century – added Moorish floral patterns and the Andalusian design influence of the central marble fountain. The two pavilion fountains – which are reminiscent of the Alhambra palace’s Court of the Lions in Granada, Spain – were added in the early 17th Century.

(Credit: Thomas Buttery)

(Credit: Thomas Buttery)

Starting out as a mosque with an adjoining Koranic school and humble library, Al-Karaouine has transformed over the years into a world-famous institution offering full-time degrees in a range of fields, drawing people from all over the world to study there. 

(Credit: Chris Griffiths)

(Credit: Chris Griffiths)

During its early years, the madrasa (school) focused on religious education, but later expanded into linguistics, grammar, law, music, Sufism, medicine and astronomy. In 1947, Al-Karaouine was integrated into the state education system and finally joined the modern state university system by royal decree in 1963 after the end of Morocco’s French protectorate era. In 1965, it was officially renamed the University of Al-Karaouine, opposed to simply ‘Al-Karaouine’.

Famous alumni who have studied within its mosaic-clad walls include 12th-Century Muslim philosopher Ibn Rushd; Pope Sylvester II (who is said to have introduced Arabic numerals to Europe after studying here in the 10th Century); 13th- to 14th-Century theologian Ibn al-Haj al-Abdari; and 16th-Century Berber Andalusi diplomat Leo Africanus. Maimonides – the Jewish philosopher famed for his writings on Jewish law and ethics during the 12th Century – was said to have connections to the madrasa.

(Credit: Chris Griffiths)

(Credit: Chris Griffiths)

The Marinid dynasty expanded the library in 1359, adding a large space stacked with more than 20,000 hand-written books dating from the early Middle Ages. It also includes 4,000 rare texts and manuscripts.

(Credit: Chris Griffiths)

(Credit: Chris Griffiths)

Sadly, many important texts and even entire libraries have been destroyed in other Arab nations, such as Iraq’s Mosul University library, during wars in recent decades. The Al-Karaouine Library, which contains some of the oldest preserved manuscripts in Islamic history, is now one of the most important in the Islamic and Arabic world. To this day, a 9th-Century Mushaf Al Karim (an old copy of a Quran; pictured above), a 10th-Century account of the Prophet Muhammad's life and textbooks by 12th-Century scholar Ibn Tufail are kept safe inside the library’s walls.

During the complex’s most recent restoration between 2012 and 2016, a high-tech laboratory was built to restore the historical manuscripts, ensuring they live on for many more generations.

(Credit: Thomas Buttery)

(Credit: Thomas Buttery)

The library also holds a 16th-Century vault, with an impenetrable copper door that has four locks and requires four key holders to open it. This system was used to protect only the most precious texts. Abdelfettah Bougchouf, the library’s curator, has the only key to the one lock that is still used.

(Credit: Chris Griffiths)

(Credit: Chris Griffiths)

After Kuwait’s Arab Bank provided a generous grant to the Moroccan Ministry of Culture for cultural preservation purposes, a small wing of the madrasa was reopened to the public in 2016. This made it possible for tourists to see its mesmerising mosaic displays and intricate carvings, as well as the students’ study rooms and dorms.

In 2012, the ministry used the grant to commission architect Aziza Chaouni to restore the university complex. Using local materials where possible, craftsmen and engineers painstakingly restored mosaic displays, restructured foundations, installed a modern sewage system and retiled its characteristic green roof.

(Credit: Thomas Buttery)

(Credit: Thomas Buttery)

Due to many centuries of restrictive social traditions, female students only started studying at the institution in significant numbers in recent years, despite it having been founded by a woman more than 1,000 years ago. It is now open to all for study regardless of faith or gender, although scholars must request permission.