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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.