Ali Ben Youssef Medersa, Marrakesh
As you approach the Madrasa through Marrakech's dusty streets there's not much to suggest what you will find behind its plain wooden doors. Maybe the ornately tiled series of horseshoe arches across the street will give you a hint - they aren't that common in the city. Once inside you will find yourself in what was once the biggest Islamic school in Morocco - with 130 little dormitory cells crowding around a central courtyard. It's a school that taught the Koran for over half a millennium.
The courtyard, built around a shallow reflecting pool, is contained by four ornately decorated walls. From the zillij tiled floor, pilasters rise up to meet great cornices carved from ancient cedar wood. Two doors, pitched beneath overlapping arches, lead you to the two dormitories, which you can visit for framed views of the courtyard below. The dormitories are plain by comparison to the courtyard, meant as they are for study and sleep, so you might find the 50 dirham fee (twice the Bahia Palace) a little steep.
Built around 1565 then rebuilt in the 16th century it is now one of the city's most impressive buildings.It is the largest Medrasa in Morocco and at one time was an Islamic college with some 900 students who would have studied the Koran.
A beautiful, ornate building which is currently a college where the Koran is studied.
The original buildings (14th Century) were replaced in the mid-16th Century.
There is a wonderful courtyard ---fabulously decorated! Also, you can visit the cell-like dormitories where the students used to sleep and study. They are so small!
Would I visit here again? No ---but I'm pleased that I've been.
9.00am until 6.00pm 40dh
The Medersa Ben Youssef is an example of 16th century Andalusian-Arab architecture. It was originally built as a religious college and was in use as such until the 1960s. It is now fully restored and contains a beautiful marble washing pool, as well as some fine examples of wood, plaster and stuuco work. A combined ticket for entrance to the Medersa, the Marrakech museum, and the ruined ancient mosque, can be purchased for a reduced cost. Unless you are pushed for time, I would certainly recommend you try to visit all three.
Dating back from the 12th century Almoravides period, this ornate cupola was only discovered and unearthed in 1948. It was part of the original Ben Youssef Mosque and was used for washing (ablution) before praying in the mosque. The architectural details of the inside of the cupola are extraordinary. Its carved multi-lobed arches are reminiscent of the domes in la Mezquita in Córdoba.
This place was one of the better monuments to see in Marrakech. You can buy a ticket to three monuments (the Marrakech Museum, Ben Youssef Medersa and an archealogical site- all next to each other) for 60 dirhams, but a single ticket to the Medersa alone is 50 dirhams. This is the old school for teaching the Quran. The building is amazingly beautiful and you are allowed to walk about freely in the entire place including old student rooms. I would recommend this site to anyone. You can take some great pics.
The master craftsmen who designed these intricate artworks apparently liked to ensure that every area of the panels was covered, with not an inch being left unadorned!
I'd assumed that the panels were carved, but I was told later, (I think when I was visiting the Bahia Palace, where there are similar designs) that the 'plaster' was poured into moulds, then these moulded panels were attached to the walls. I guess that is why the panels are symetrical and so often repeated, but should imagine it was still a very time consuming job!
While looking through the windows from the students rooms to the streets outside, I was surprised to find myself looking into a yard, which had piles of old painted wooden pieces of architecture under tarpaulin covers.
Initially I thought I'd also come across a pile of bones!! ( I later realised these were assorted wooden carved chair or table 'legs' )
This Medersa is unique, in that some of the rooms have windows overlooking the outside streets. I don't know if the students had much opportunity to leave the medersa during their stay there, but this would give a view on the outside world.
After wandering around the students cells, I realised that you could get quite a good view of the street life below, without being observed :-) so spent quite a while visiting each of the rooms to find the one with the best view.
One overlooks a shop that appeared to sell beads and had a chameleon in a cage, (unfortunately I forgot to use the infinity button on my camera, so didn't get the photo I'd hoped for) others overlook the street near the entrance to the medersa. (which is where this picture was of)
This doorway is decorated with panels of Koranic verse, and leads into the inner courtyard, where you can see examples of zillij tile work.
Initially I thought that the intricate panels had been carved 'in - situ', but I learnt that many of these were 'plaster casted' in a mould, then fitted to the walls- again, requiring skillful craftsmen to design and create these stunning features.
You can see some of these examples in more detail in my other pics accompanying this tip.
I was quite impressed with the courtyard and pool, despite my visit co inciding with the arrival of a tour group, I only had a short wait, while they dispersed to view the inner rooms.
The courtyard was quite peaceful, and there were a few chairs to sit and admire the architecture of the medersa, under the warm winter sun. (I should imagine it's very hot here in summer though)
This photo is taken facing the mosque (masjid).
The intricate decoration is typical of the Merenid period style (This Moroccan dynasty ruled during the 13th and 14th century, and constructed many mederssas throughout Morocco)
The zellij (decorative tilework) base is a typical design, fragments of ceramic tiles usually of blue, green and yellow laid on a white background with black tiles forming an interlinked pattern ( I saw similar patterns in the Bahia Palace and Saadian tombs)
Above the zellij are panels of intricate lace like stucco work, with extracts from the Koran.
The artwork follows geometric patterns, often repeated and intertwined- this is typical of Islamic Art, as depiction of living things is considered to be an insult to God, artists have perfected these decorative abstract and geometric patterns.
Above the stucco panels are carved cedar wood panels , again showing symetrical repeated designs.
Although the room is identical to that of the rural student (see previous tip) The Urban students possesions reflect their relative prosperity.
The number of items is the same, but of a higher quality, for example, the writing desk is more decorative, the candlesticks are brass (those of the rural student were plain wood)
You can wander around most of the students cells, most are quite bare, without windows, some have a raised platform for extra sleeping space, some offer views through iron grilles onto the outside world!
There are about 130 rooms, and apparently about 900 students were crammed into these small cells! It was the largest Koranic university in North Africa.
On the second storey are a couple of mock ups of a students room (presumably these are for the senior students- not much room even with the limited items they were allowed to bring with them.
This room shows the items that a rural student would use for studying and in looking after himself.
These items included, a writing desk, pens, candlestick, oil lamp, a tagine, cooking pans and bowls, tea containers, equipment for tea making, pots for dried fruits, a water vessel, a prayer rug, and a rug for sleeping on.
You can't actually enter this room, but you can view from the doorway.
Luckily there weren't too many visitors at the time I visited, but I should imagine when busy, you might not get such an uninterrupted viewing.
Surrounding the courtyard on the second storey are the windows of the students rooms. Again, these are equal distances apart and symetrical in their design.
The lacework stucco panels are sandwiched from above and below by cedar wood panels.
I tried very hard to get a picture without someone popping their head through the window, but as you can see I failed (ah well, he was quite attractive! :-) )
Beware when YOU'RE looking out of these windows as you're bound to feature in someones photo or video!
This Medersa is the largest theological college in the Maghreb (the West - area covered by Morocco, Tunisia , Algeria and Libya-lit. where the sun sets!)
Built in 1565, then rebuilt in the 16th and 19th centurys with restoration work completed in the 1960's.
This Medersa is unique - in being the largest, and having a different layout.
The students cells (about 130) are clustered around 7 courtyards, with some looking onto the outside streets, which is unusual in Moroccan/Andalucian architecture.
Walking down a corridor (after paying) you turn right into a courtyard, (turn round to admire the ornate carved and painted door) with a large pool. I was mesmorised by the stunning reflection of the door in the pool!
Some stunning stucco decorative panels, tiled zellij bases and ceder wood carvings to admire.
Climb the stairs for views of the students cells. (There are a couple of mock ups of a city and rural students rooms)
Peep through the windows for a 'secret' view onto the streets below. ( Some offer a view onto 'local life' that you may not be able to photograph normally!) or views onto the courtyard below.
If viewing the Medersa, The Marrakesh Museum and Koubba Ba'adiyn (all within a very short walk) there is a discount ticket for 50dh (25dh for children/senior citizens) Otherwise it is 30 dh (15dh ) for this 1 site.
open 0900 - 1900 April - Sept
0900 - 1800 Oct - March