Hand-drawn illustration of Al-Qarawiyyin Mosque in Fez, Morocco

For over 1200 years, the Al-Qarawiyyin Mosque (or al-Karaouine) has been one of the leading spiritual and educational centers of the Muslim World. With a history dating back to the 9th century, this mosque and university have been the selected congregation space for various Muslim saints and scholars throughout the centuries.

Today, the university continues to function as an excellent school of religious and physical sciences, and the mosque is considered Morocco’s holiest place, governing the time of all Islamic festivals across the country. On your next visit to Fez, make sure you head into its old town and take your time discovering this magnificent treasure chest of history that has much more to it than meets the eye.

An Incredible Woman

One of the most fascinating pieces of history about the Al-Qarawyiyyin (al-Karaouine) Mosque and University is that it was actually established by a woman.

Fatima Fihriyya is the name of the incredible woman who founded what some argue is the world’s oldest university in the 9th century. Originally from Qayrawan, in present-day Tunisia, Fatima’s family immigrated to Fez in the 800s at a time when this city was a bustling cosmopolitan hub and a promise land for those looking for fortune and success. After a humble beginning filled with turmoil and struggles, Fatima’s father was able to become a successful businessman and Fatima eventually married. A few blessed years followed until a series of unfortunate events led to the deaths of Fatima’s father, brother and husband.

Fatima was left alone with her sister Mariam to receive a large inheritance that would allow them to be financially independent. As two well-educated women, the two sisters decided to invest their fortune into their communities and thus began the project to construct the Al-Qarawiyyin mosque and university. As a deeply spiritual woman, Fatima vowed to fast daily from the first day of construction until its completion almost two years later, at which time she offered prayers of gratitude in the very mosque she helped build.

Morocco’s Holiest Mosque

Al-Qarawiyyin (or al-Karaouine) mosque still functions today as one of Morocco’s major religious centers, governing all Muslim festivities throughout the year across the country. Originally built in the 9th century, the mosque saw extensive additions to its simple structure in the 12th and 18th centuries. Today, this ancient mosque features beautiful Andalusian ornamental details including carved stucco wood, stoned minarets, blue and white tiles, and exquisite marble fountains.

Inspired by the Mezquita in Cordoba, Al-Qarawiyyin’s layout features endless rows of round arches that will dazzle any visitor. The interior of the prayer hall, kept private for Muslims only, is more austere with an unadorned ceiling, white-washed arches and simple mats covering the floors.

And although non-Muslims are prohibited from entering the mosque, peering through the gates to get a view of its interior is allowed and is a common sight in the area. However, if you are looking to get an exceptional view of the mosque, head to Medersa el Attarin – it is not always open to the public, but if you find it closed, you may be able to persuade the guard to let you in. From there, you will get to enjoy glimpses of the exquisite inner courtyard and the two beautiful minarets.

The World’s Oldest University

When Fatima first set out to build the al-Karaouine in the 9th century, she wanted to create a space that would enrich her community. The green-roofed structure lined with white-washed round arches soon gained bigger proportions though and truly became a cultural, social and politically relevant institution helping to educate, direct and reform the lives of the Muslim world community. At its height in the 14th century, the university produced world renowned jurists, historians, mathematicians, astronomers, physicians, poets and prominent scholars.

Today, the university is considered the oldest one in the world by UNESCO which draws many visitors to its gates. Unfortunately, only Muslims are allowed to enter the campus but non-Muslims are allowed to peer through any door that may be left open to admire the courts and fountain inside.

An Impressive Legacy

Almost 1200 years have passed since the al-Qarawiyyin was built in 859 and yet it still remains an esteemed institution today. The university was integrated into the state education system in the 1940s and became a modern university with faculties all throughout the country. It continues to graduate students in the various religious and physical sciences. The mosque also grew throughout the centuries and is today one of Morocco’s most relevant religious centers.

Despite the limitations to non-Muslims visiting the site, it is truly a once in a lifetime opportunity to visit what many consider to be the world’s oldest university. If this alone doesn’t grab your attention, the magnificent architectural details are sure to leave you breathless as you walk along the walls of this ancient treasure tucked away in the old town of Fez.


Maria Inês PintoThis article was co-authored with Maria Inês Pinto, a young Portuguese freelancer born with a passion for writing and travel.She has spent her life hopping around different countries, having lived in Canada, the US, India and Ireland. Now residing in Portugal, she is planning to move to Mozambique soon to pursue her third passion: humanitarian work. In her free time, she travels and writes about her adventures.

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