Thanks for another interesting question.
Like many history questions, this isn't as straightforward as it seems
at first. It depends on what exactly you mean by a university! Is it
any community of scholars? Does it have to teach a range of
non-religious subjects to count as a university? Must it be free to
teach whatever it chooses? Should it test students and grant degrees?
Al-Azhar University in Cairo (Egypt), founded in 970 AD, is a strong
contender for the title of first university ever.
An earlier possibility is the medical school founded at Salerno
(Italy) in the 9th century.
Bologna (Italy), founded in the 11th century, is often said to be the
first university. Some people feel this was the first of a new breed
of academic institutions in mediaeval Europe which were relatively
free to run themselves.
"The first university in the modern sense is believed by some to have
been the medical school founded in the 9th century at Salerno, but the
first with a precise founding date appears to have been the Alazhar
University of Cairo in 970 A.D., followed by those in Bologna, Paris,
Oxford and Cambridge in the early 1000s. These early universities were
allowed freedom to govern themselves providing they did not teach
atheism or heresy and the European ones were granted the right to
elect their own rectors and raise their own finances."
Some people would make claims for Nalanda in India, a Buddhist school
founded in the 5th century, or for Takshashila, an Indian place of
learning even older than Nalanda.
There were various other ancient academies or schools which could be
described as universities.
"Arguably the first university was the Academy founded in 387 BC by
the Greek philosopher Plato in the grove of Academos near Athens,
where students were taught philosophy, mathematics and gymnastics."
" . . . the great schools and universities, which have existed
throughout civilizations, centuries and even millennia . . . . the
great Confucian and Buddhist schools of India , and to the Great
School of the Hans, 2000 years ago, in China. . . . In Japan, for
instance, .... the Daigaku Ryo in the 7th Century, but I am also
referring to the Great school and Museum of Alexandria 2000 years ago,
and to the great Islamic schools which still exist today - and existed
before Bologna, before Oxford, before Paris, Al-Azhar in Cairo,
Zaitouna in Tunis, Quaraouiyine in Fes."
Here are excerpts and links to other webpages to fill in more background.
"Al-Azhar University, Cairo
The world's oldest university and Sunni Islam's foremost seat of learning.
. . . .
Al-Azhar University is a natural expansion of the great mosque of
Al-Azhar, the oldest and most celebrated of all Islamic academic
institutes and Universities all over the world without exception. For
over one thousand year Al-Azhar was venerated cultural centre for all
Muslims in the East and West."
"Bologna . . . . True, the first university in the world was founded
here, and even the word 'university' itself, in its modern sense, has
its origins in this city, where since the year 1100 every discipline
of the academic world has been studied with dedication and brought to
"Probably the earliest founded was that of Salerno, about the year
A.D. 875. This was primarily a school of medicine, and attracted
students from many lands.
It was, however, impossible as well as undesirable, to limit the range
of study, and other branches were embraced, but it was not until
almost the end of the twelfth century that a real university was
founded at Bologna."
"Modern colleges and universities evolved from Western European
institutions of the Middle Ages . . . . However, significant types of
higher learning existed in ancient times, in the Middle East and the
Far East as well as in Europe. Some of these institutions still
Higher education in ancient Greece began at the Academy, established
in about 387 bc by Plato, and at the Lyceum, founded in 335 bc by
Aristotle. Both institutions offered advanced study of philosophy.
Also beginning in the 4th century bc, the Egyptian city of Alexandria
attracted scholars from Greece and the Middle East to its museum and
to the great Library of Alexandria. From about 70 ad through the 13th
century, scholars at Jewish academies in Palestine and Babylonia
produced the Talmud, a text that promoted religious and secular
intellectual pursuits. Beginning in about the 5th century ad, Indian
and Chinese students studied Buddhism in Nalanda, a community of
scholars in northern India. Institutions of higher education
flourished in China beginning in the 7th century and in Korea from the
14th century. Al Azhar University, founded in the 10th century in
Cairo, Egypt, is the central authority for Islamic learning and is
still one of the most prominent universities in the Middle East."
"The University of Nalanda was founded in the 5th century by the Gupta
emperors. There were thousands of students and teachers. The courses
of study included scriptures of Buddhism (both Mahayana and Hinayana
Schools), Vedas, Hetu Vidya (Logic), Shabda Vidya (grammar), Chikitsa
vidya (medicine) etc."
"Often referred to as a university, Nalanda was, from the 4th to the
12 cent. A.D., the most renowned center of Buddhist learning in
"Takshashila, modern Taxila, was an ancient seat of learning . . . . .
We learn from the Buddhist scriptures that students from as far as
Magadha, modern Bihar, flocked to learn at the feet of the gurus and
rishis of Takshashila."
156 - 87 BC
. . . .
The emperor established a Confucian university for administrators;
appointed himself head of the bureaucracy and began selecting
administrators by oral examination."
List of oldest universities in continuous operation
I hope you found this interesting, Nonnette. Please let me know if you
need anything clarified.
Best Wishes - Leli
search terms - combinations of:
Cairo Bologna [and other names]