The medersa – traditional Islamic school/college – is situated on a blind corner of an unassuming street at the northernmost tip of the souks.
The façade of the entrance and the arches that shield it gives you a glimpse of what to expect inside. The best Islamic art was typically reserved for palaces and mosques. Palaces are next to none in Marrakech, especially if you are looking for fine art; and mosques, like the Koutubia that have abundant of it, reserve the entrance only for Muslims.
For a non-Muslim, Ben Youssef Medersa is the best bet to see the Islamic fine art first hand at close quarters.
The entrance porch to Ben Youssef Medersa
The historic college is named after the founder of the city of Marrakech – Ali Ibn Yusuf – and was built in the 15th century. The building one sees today was rebuilt ground up in the 16th century during the rule of the Saadien dynasty.
Central square with the absolution pool of the Ben Youssef Medersa
Inside, the building is breathtaking.
The design of this Muslim-Andalusian masterpiece is simple – a two storied building surrounding a couple of courtyards. It suits well the purpose it was built for – a place for students to study the Q’uran in complete tranquil. The courtyards served as central gathering spaces for absolution, while the rooms on the second floor are for the austere dormitories that housed about a thousand students at a time.
I had reached the medersa early in the morning and being one of the first half dozen tourists to be let in, could enjoy the marvelous Muslim artisanship without being hurried. The artists have spared no effort in detailing every square inch of the walls. At waist level are friezes of intricate zellij patterns, then beautiful stuccowork in the middle capped by carved cedar near the roof.
The beautiful stuccowork
I climbed to the second floor and enjoyed a marvelous dichotomy.
Towards the center of the floor are the simple square rooms of the dormitory with plain walls and windows set high in the walls – a source of light, not inspiration – to ensure the student had no distraction while the Q’uran was being memorized verbatim. At the inner periphery of the building, are arched balconies that peep into the wonderful courtyard providing an opportunity to see the stucco and cedar carving at closely.
I spent an enchanting hour and a half here, a typical timeslot you can allocate to almost any monument in Marrakech.
Without doubt, Ben Youssef Medersa is my favorite indoor spot in Marrakech.
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