You can miss one of Medina’s greatest gems if you move through the crowded alleyways of Marrakesh too quickly.
The beautiful Medersa Ben Youssef (Ben Youssef Madrasa), once the largest Quranic school in North Africa, has a facade that fits far too well with the dingy homes and structures of the medina.
However, don’t be misled by its bare outside walls and basic wooden doors. This historic school’s interior is adorned with exquisite craftsmanship features, such as zellij tiles, amazing stucco work, and lovely wood carvings.
Take a break from your tour through the medina’s meandering lanes to find a gorgeous sanctuary that will make the busy souks seem like nothing more than a distant memory.
One Thousand Years of History
The medersa was first a tiny extension to the nearby Ben Youssef Mosque built by the Merenids in the 14th century. It was much plainer then than it is now.
Students from all over the world flocked to this Islamic learning center to learn the Quran by heart and study Islamic law and the sciences.
The majority of students would go on to become judges, lawyers, or mullahs.
The entire building was completely rebuilt by Saadian Sultan Abdallah al Ghalib in the 16th century.
The sultan substantially expanded the ancient edifice and added the exquisite Andalusian architectural features that now make this medersa one of the most magnificent ones in the region. He did this in an effort to rival the holy city of Fez.
The medersa has 132 dormitory cells overall, and 900 students might reside in each one at once.
No area is left untouched, and the walls are covered in exquisitely crafted craftsmanship, sacred inscriptions, and captivating geometric shapes, just like the modern Saadian Tombs.
Before it was shut down in the 1960s, the institution spent more than half a century teaching the Quran.
The medersa was forced to close because it had gradually lost students over the years to its college rival, the Medersa Bou Inania in Fez.
The medersa had a complete two-decade renovation before being reopened in 1982 as a historical property.
Today, you may explore the courtyard, dorm rooms, and prayer hall of this former school in all its splendour.
Just keep in mind: don’t rush through the halls!
The Medersa Ben Youssef’s modest entrance features just one feature that is impossible to miss: a lovely inscription that reads, “You who approach my door, may your highest dreams be exceeded.”
The inscription, which was originally addressed to the students who resided there, is equally applicable to today’s visitors.
The medersa is built around a large courtyard that is wonderfully reflected by a shallow rectangular pool with jade tiles in the centre, dazzling marble, carved cedar wood, horseshoe arches, and a priceless patch of blue sky.
Hispano-Moresque decorations, including five-colour zellij walls, stucco archways, cedar windows with carved vines, and a curved mihrab made of milky-white Italian Carrara marble, are all present on the walls enclosing the courtyard.
The courtyard’s two arcades with columns connect to a domed prayer chamber at the rear.
The large prayer hall’s elaborate decoration includes odd pine cone and palm themes in addition to more traditional ornaments like Islamic calligraphy, zellij tilework, and extraordinarily detailed plaster ceilings.
If you decide to go on a tour of the location, the guide will probably ask you to enter the chamber and make a loud noise to demonstrate the incredible echo created by the building, which is an incredibly beneficial feature given that 900 pupils are rumored to have once taken classes here.
After admiring the prayer hall’s exquisite features, return to the spacious courtyard and make your way to the first level to see the dormitory cells, which initially seem unimpressive.
These rooms’ absence of decorative embellishments can stand in stark contrast to the remainder of the medersa’s abundant decorative details.Even if it’s just to try and imagine how 900 boys could have ever lived and studied here at once, it’s still worthwhile to climb the steep wooden steps and see the cramped rooms that have housed various pupils over the years.
Additionally, the intricately carved vines of the windows provide a special chance for photographs of the courtyard.
A Peaceful Sanctuary
The medersa’s interior stillness is among its most remarkable qualities, along with its wonderful ornamental decorations.
The soaring walls of the former Quranic school mysteriously muffle the city noise and create a quiet and spiritual atmosphere despite being surrounded by the bustle of the dusty medina streets.
If possible, visit in the morning when there are fewer people and the early sunlight nicely accentuates the medersa’s orderly beauty.
Maybe you’ll even get lucky enough to run into a young calligrapher who occasionally sets up a tiny booth in the courtyard and will write your name in whirling script for just a few dirhams.
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