Yes! The oldest university in the world is the University of al-Qarawinyyin, founded in 859 in Fez, Morocco. However, another university that was founded not long after that and is often forgotten in the conversation is the University of Sankoré. It was founded around the 1100s in Timbuktu (yes, Timbuktu is a real place), Mali. Many do not consider Sankoré to be a real university because it wasn’t structured like the universities we know today. It had no central administration, student registers, or prescribed courses of study; rather, it was composed of several entirely independent schools or colleges, each run by a single master. Students associated themselves with a single teacher, and courses took place in the open courtyards of mosque complexes or private residences. Sounds like a great place to learn to us!
Sankoré was a mosque and part of the ancient African Songhai Empire, one of the most powerful Kingdoms in the known world. It was located in the city of Timbuktu, a lynchpin in the trades of salt, gold, and other goods to the Arab, African and European powers of the time. That mosque would become known as the University of Sankoré and was so well known that it was added to maps produced in Europe.
Its greatest expansion came under the rule of King Mansa Musa, who was the richest man ever. Yes, we said EVER… step aside Jeff Bezos. Mansa Musa restructured the university with jurists, astronomers and mathematicians. Scholars from around Africa, the Middle East and Europe traveled to Timbuktu to study. Because of King Mansa Musa, the Sankoré University had been converted into a fully staffed university with the largest collection of books in Africa since the Library of Alexandria.
Sankoré University was capable of housing 25,000 students and had one of the largest libraries in the world with roughly one million manuscripts. The University of Sankoré is still functioning, but with very limited resources on its ancient site. Sankoré is now a shadow of its former self, and it is hoped that UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) will help preserve its history and ancient buildings.
Fun Fact 1: In the 1800’s Timbuktu was considered a place of mythical riches. In 1824, the Geographical Society of Paris offered a reward of 7,000 Francs and a gold medal valued at 2,000 Francs to the first European who could visit Timbuktu. Obviously to claim the price they would also have to return alive, and with evidence. Sadly, there were no Instagram or Facebook Live Streams back then.
Fun Fact 2: Have you ever heard of the phrase “From here to Timbuktu?” This is a commonly used western phrase to denote somewhere a journey to somewhere that is very far away. For example, you could say “I’m not going from here to Timbuktu to pick up your things.”