View of the Ben Youssef medersa in Marrakech
This Koranic school was built around 1570 by the Saâdians and restored in 1950. It was commissioned by the Saâdi sultan Abdellah Al Ghalib, who completed its construction in 1564-1565. In its heyday, the Ben Youssef medersa could accommodate up to 900 students. This architectural feature makes this sacred building the largest medersa in the Maghreb. The medersa has a quadrilateral floor plan with a surface area of 1,680 m², and includes a prayer hall and 130 student rooms.
There are several classes of rooms: those overlooking the patio, reserved for the notables, those overlooking the open-air courtyards like this one, those overlooking the staircases and those overlooking the street.
Two reconstructed rooms illustrate, through their furnishings, the life of students inside the Medersa Ben Youssef. One represents the room of a rural student, the other that of a city-dweller. The elements are the same, but may vary in style: for example, some objects in the rural student’s room are made of pottery or terracotta, while those in the city student’s room are made of ceramic or bronze:
a wooden writing desk,
calames (reed quills),
manuscripts (mainly religious),
candles or oil lamps,
tagine, brazier and bellows for meals.
tray, glasses and teapot for tea,
pouches for provisions (dates and dried fruit),
water jug and container for ablutions,
sheepskin for prayer rugs,
cushion and mat for sleeping.
Berber houses traditionally have no glass in the windows. This window is one of the noblest rooms, large and overlooking the courtyard.
Windows look out from a corridor onto one of the inner courtyards. This masterpiece of sacred architecture in Marrakech‘s Medina is astonishing in some of its boldness. The architect has swept away some of the Arabo-Andalusian traditions, opening some of the cells onto the streets of the Medina. The cells also feature windows overlooking the small courtyards that structure the building.
There are six such courtyards around the medersa’s central courtyard. Student rooms are located all around. The Ben Youssef medersa is fascinating for the wealth of craftsmanship and decoration that went into its stucco walls and cedar decorations.
These bands of geometric structure are made of stucco, i.e. painted plaster. Only in nobler monuments are they made of engraved marble. Here, they delineate the ceiling decorations.
The prayer room occupies the central part of the patio’s southern façade. It is divided into three lateral aisles with wooden cupboards that served as libraries. The axial nave houses the mihrab, with its semi-circular arched opening supported by four marble columns. The prayer room is sumptuously decorated, combining all the elements that make up the monument’s richness: marble, wood and plaster with polychrome motifs.
The stucco decoration in the form of stalactites under the mihrab’s dome can be discovered along the self-guided tour of the Ben Youssef Medersa. This niche in the wall of the Medersa indicates the direction of Mecca, so the faithful prayed in this direction. Verses, inscriptions and epigraphs are engraved in honor of the founder.
When stucco decorations don’t feature geometric designs, they are composed of repetitive Arabic texts.
A large pool occupies the center of the medersa’s patio. It is fed by a simple water spout with no large fountain, thus emphasizing the calm of this courtyard.
The Ben Youssef mosque
Next to the Ben Youssef medersa is a large mosque. Unlike the medersa, the mosque is still in use. In the past, medersa students would take their classes at the mosque, their medersa having been little more than a student center.
Marrakech’s medina grew up around the mosque built in the 12th century in honor of Sidi Youssef Ben Ali, one of the city’s seven patron saints. Restorations carried out in the 16th and 19th centuries have left virtually nothing of the original architecture. The 40-metre-high stone minaret dominates the city. The green tiles are still a sign of more noble buildings.
The 1100 marabout is the only architectural evidence of the Almoravid era in Marrakech. The koubba was unearthed by archaeologists around 1948. It is located in the ben Youssef district, close to the mosque of the same name. The Almoravid Koubba is a small architectural complex used for ablutions, which was part of an Almoravid mosque. This monument takes the form of a dome encircled by the remains of small cells that served as latrines. The dome is built over a rectangular basin. The interior of the dome is decorated with epigraphy and floral arabesques.