North Africa’s largest madrasa

Ben Youssef Madrasa, Marrakech, Morocco

North Africa’s largest madrasa

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Ben Youssef Madrasa, Marrakech, Morocco

Built almost 500 years ago, the Ben Youssef Madrasa in Marrakech feels like it has changed very little in that time. As you step through the front door from the wild alleys of the Moroccan city, the cool air brings physical relief but also a sense of calm.

An inscription over the entrance reads, “You who enter my door, may your highest hopes be exceeded”. It could be a message for the tourists who find their way in here, not quite sure what to expect but drawn by guidebooks and recommendations. If so, it’s fitting because the hope of discovering a special slice of authentic Marrakech is indeed hidden away in here.

Ben Youssef Madrasa, Marrakech, Morocco

Of course, the message was actually directed at the students who spent their time here in religious academia. The Ben Youssef Madrasa was once the largest Islamic school in North Africa and had up to 900 students at its peak. They all lived here on site and it’s hard to imagine today how they all fitted. Small dormitories arranged around the central courtyard was where they slept but it must have been a tight squeeze.

Ben Youssef Madrasa, Marrakech, Morocco

Ben Youssef Madrasa, Marrakech, Morocco

At times, it must also have been a dark and isolating experience. The layout of the madrasa almost immediately erases memory of an outside world. The building doesn’t have a view outwards from the lower levels and the corridors between rooms seem to press inwards. In most of the small study rooms, there is no natural light and students sit in spaces along the wall with their teacher settled into a space at the end.

Ben Youssef Madrasa, Marrakech, Morocco

Ben Youssef Madrasa, Marrakech, Morocco

The upper levels, however, are brighter and make clever use of sunlights and internal windows. This is where the teachers would have lived. From this top level, it’s also possible to peer down into the central courtyard – and this is where the most beautiful part of the Ben Youssef Madrasa is.

Ben Youssef Madrasa, Marrakech, Morocco

Ben Youssef Madrasa, Marrakech, Morocco

The courtyard is an intricate and colourful representation of Islamic art from centuries ago. Rather than depicting particular images, small tiles are arranged into mosaics of vibrant patterns. Plasterwork and carvings on the walls illustrate Arabic inscriptions and even more detailed patterns that conjure up a natural yet somewhat spiritual environment. The columns, the varied sizes of the doorways and the central pool all fit together in harmony.

Ben Youssef Madrasa, Marrakech, Morocco

Ben Youssef Madrasa, Marrakech, Morocco

The madrasa was in use for teaching right up into 1960 but is now open just as a historical site. Clearly very little has been altered or developed since construction was finished in 1565. Although this is not considered to be one of the top sites to visit in Marrakech, it would a shame to miss it.

Check out my other suggestions for things to see and do in Marrakech

 

9 Comments
  • Emiko | Dec 3, 2014 at 8:16 pm

    Awesome post. I visited this twice last month, but had no idea it was once the largest Islamic school in North Africa!
    Emiko recently posted..The Colors of MoroccoMy Profile

  • A Montrealer Abroad (@marievallieres) | Dec 4, 2014 at 3:30 pm

    This is one of my favorite things to do in all of Morocco. I looooved admiring the details.
    A Montrealer Abroad (@marievallieres) recently posted..My Favourite Montreal Instagram AccountsMy Profile

  • Mary @ Green Global Travel | Dec 9, 2014 at 3:57 am

    Very cool post! Interesting to read a little history while checking out the amazing architecture. Thanks for sharing!
    Mary @ Green Global Travel recently posted..ECO NEWS: Faroe Islands Whale Hunting- Culture vs. ConservationMy Profile

  • Laura @Travelocafe | Jan 20, 2015 at 10:33 am

    Great photos… great architecture…
    Laura @Travelocafe recently posted..Sense Asia #Giveaway – 32 Tea Varieties from VietnamMy Profile

    • Michael Turtle | Jan 30, 2015 at 2:36 am

      It’s such beautiful architecture, isn’t it? I love the colours and the art of these old Islamic buildings. It’s so detailed but also leaves a lot up to the imagination of what it represents exactly.

  • DISCOVER | Highlights of Marrakech Morocco - BACK TO BUCKLEY | Jul 2, 2015 at 3:38 pm

    […] a corner in a narrow, cat-infested alley in the souk and you’ll find Ben Youssef Madrasa whose beauty of craftsmanship and design is incomparable.  A triumph of Islamic architecture, this […]

  • Vernon Holt | Dec 10, 2015 at 8:05 am

    On my way to London this morning with a painting to hang….couldn’t for the life of me remember what the name was exactly, and lo and behold, found this blog. Wonderful pictures and informative text, thanks TTT! It will be something to explore on my return. We stayed in the Medina over Christmas 2014.

    • Michael Turtle | Dec 14, 2015 at 7:58 am

      Ha – awesome! So glad I could be of some assistance.

  • rocking the Kasbah in Marrakech | Becstar – A Brisbanite Abroad | Apr 11, 2016 at 4:10 am

    […] smiths, textiles etc all separated. We would be back to haggle later, for now we were on our way to La Madersa Ben Youssef – the biggest Koranic school in Morocco built in the 1500′s. The entry was a simple […]

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