This Is the Oldest University in the World

By historic standards, America’s oldest universities are not very old. Most of the oldest ones were founded in the century after the pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock in 1620. Harvard, America’s oldest university, was started in 1636. Yale was founded in 1701. Neither will make a list of the world’s oldest universities, as they are not even close.

How old is old? The ancient Buddhist monastery of Nalanda in northeastern India, for example, passed on knowledge as far back as 500 C.E., until it was ransacked by invaders in the 13th century. The Madrasa Al Nizamiyya in Khargird, Iran, was founded in the 11th century as one of the first Islamic centers of knowledge. In fact, because of early Islam’s emphasis on teaching certain secular subjects, like mathematics and geometry, the two oldest existing universities are Islamic schools in Morocco and Egypt.

Universities in the New World did not start to emerge until the 17th century, so none are close to the age of the oldest that still exist. The oldest university in Asia that still churns out graduates today is the University of Santo Tomas in Manila, founded in 1611 by a Catholic bishop.

24/7 Tempo reviewed profiles of academic institutions of higher learning and cross-referenced founding date and enrollment number claims with university websites. In some cases, we also cross-referenced information with higher-education-oriented websites, mainly Times Higher Education and U.S. News and World Report. Some total student enrollment figures are estimates provided by the universities’ About Us pages. Others are from the higher-education-oriented websites. Figures that are not estimates come from the latest available academic school year posted on the universities’ websites.

The world’s oldest university is the University of Al-Karaouine. Here are the details:

  • Founded: 859
  • Main campus located: Fez, Morocco
  • Total student enrollment: 8,000 (est.)

The University of Al-Karaouine is “the oldest existing, and continually operating educational institution in the world,” according to the Guinness Book of World Records. The university was founded by a woman 227 years after the death of the Prophet Muhammad. The university taught some natural sciences as part of its religiously centered curriculum and expanded its non-religious curriculum in the middle of the 20th century. Students must have memorized the entire Quran before attending the university.

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