North Africa’s largest madrasa

Although it was built 500 years ago, the Ben Youssef Madrasa has hardly changed. Once the largest Islamic school in North Africa, it’s now a must visit!

Written by Michael Turtle

Michael Turtle is the founder of Time Travel Turtle. He has been a journalist for more than 20 years and has travelled the world full time since 2011.

Michael Turtle is the founder of Time Travel Turtle and has been travelling full time for a decade.

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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 Ben Youssef 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 Ben Youssef 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 many guides do not consider it to be one of the top sites to visit in Marrakech, it would a shame to miss it.

NOTE: Unfortunately the Ben Youssef Madrasa is currently (2018) closed for an extensive renovation. There is no official date for the reopening at the moment.

But I would recommend getting a local tour of the main sights in Marrakech and there are some great options here:

 

THE BEST ACCOMMODATION IN MARRAKECH

The most authentic style of accommodation is a riad in the medina – but they come in all shapes and sizes!

BACKPACKER

For a cool and safe hostel in a riad, have a look at Rodamón Marrakech.

BUDGET

A nice riad that is affordable and welcoming is Riad Dar Nadwa.

BOUTIQUE

For a stunning boutique option, I think 72 Riad Living is one of the best in the city.

LUXURY

And Riad L’Hôtel Marrakech is an absolutely stunning hotel, if you feel like splurging!

9 thoughts on “North Africa’s largest madrasa”

    • 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.

      Reply
  1. 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.

    Reply

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