If you walk too quickly through the busy streets of the Marrakesh medina, you may just miss out on one of its biggest treasures. Once the largest Quranic school in North Africa, the facade of the stunning Medersa Ben Youssef (Ben Youssef Madrasa) blends too easily with the dusty houses and buildings of the medina. But don’t be mistaken by its plain wooden doorway and bare outer walls. The inside of this ancient school is filled with magnificent craftsmanship details from zeillij tiling to incredible stuccowork and beautiful wood carvings. So take a breather on your journey through the winding streets of the medina and discover a magnificent (and quiet!) sanctuary that will make you forget all about the hustle and bustle of the hectic souks.
Half a Millennium of History
Initially built in the 14th century by the Merenids as a small annex to the neighboring Ben Youssef Mosque, the medersa was originally a minor structure and much plainer than it is today. This Islamic learning center was where students came from all over the world to learn the Quran by rote and study Islamic law and the sciences. Most students would go on to become mullahs, judges or lawyers.
In the 16th century, the whole structure was entirely reconstructed by Saadian Sultan Abdallah al Ghalib. Hoping to rival the holy city of Fez, the sultan not only greatly extended upon the original structure but also added the gorgeous Andalusian architectural elements which still make this medersa one of the most splendid ones in the region today.
In total, the medersa houses 132 dormitory cells which were occupied by 900 students at a time. As with the contemporary Saadian Tombs, no surface is left undecorated and the walls are filled with magnificently executed craftsmanship, holy inscriptions and enchanting geometric figures.
The school taught the Quran for over half a millennium until it was closed in the 1960s. Throughout the centuries, the medersa had slowly lost its students to its collegiate rival, the Medersa Bou Inania in Fez, and this led to the decision of its closure. For two decades, the medersa was entirely refurbished and it was reopened in 1982 as a historical site. Today, you can visit this former school in all its glory and wander through its courtyard, dormitory cells and prayer hall. Just remember: no running in the halls!
“You who enter my door, may your highest hopes be exceeded”
The unassuming entry to the exquisite architectural gem that is the Medersa Ben Youssef has but one detail that can’t be missed: a beautiful inscription reading “You who enter my door, may your highest hopes be exceeded”. Originally directed at the students that lived within its walls, the inscription applies just as easily to today’s visitors.
The medersa centers around a vast courtyard where a shallow jade-tiled rectangular pool in its middle beautifully reflects shining marble, carved cedar wood, horseshoe archways and a precious piece of blue sky. The walls containing the courtyard are covered in a magical mix of Hispano-Moresque elements: five-color zeillij walls, stucco archways, cedar windows with carved vines and a curved mihrab of milky-white Italian Carrara marble.
The two columned arcades of the courtyard lead to a domed prayer hall in the back. Elaborately decorated with unusual pine cone and palm motifs, the sizable prayer hall also features more common ornamental elements such as Islamic calligraphy, zeillij tilework and incredibly intricate stucco ceilings. If you choose to visit the site with a guide, it is probably at this time that he will invite you to step into the room and say something loudly to illustrate the extraordinary echo generated – an extremely useful feature of this hall, given the 900 students that were said to attend lessons here once.
After you’ve taken in the glorious details of the prayer hall, step back into the vast courtyard and head up to the first floor to visit the seemingly unremarkable dormitory cells. The lack of ornamental details in these quarters can negatively contrast with the rich decorative elements of the rest of the medersa. But it’s still worth your while to head up the narrow wooden stairs and explore the tiny halls and cells which have been inhabited by numerous students throughout the centuries – if only so you can fathom how 900 boys could have ever lived and studied here at once! As a bonus, the intricate carved vines of the windows make for a unique photo opportunity of the courtyard.
A Peaceful Sanctuary
Besides the exquisite ornamental details of the medersa, one of its most magnificent features is the silence it contains within its walls. Although set among the hustle and bustle of the dusty medina streets, the soaring walls of the former Quranic school magically mute the city noise and create a serene and spiritual environment.
If you can, come in the morning when there are less crowds and the early sun light beautifully highlights the disciplined beauty of the medersa. Maybe you will be lucky enough to even meet a young calligrapher who sometimes sets up a small table in the courtyard and, for just a few dirhams, will write your name in swirling letters.
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This article was authored by Maria Inês Pinto, a 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.