With a clear directive, and a more thorough understanding of the chaotic medina alleys, we began our third day in Marrakech in search of the Ben Youssef Medersa. While the historic Islamic school turned museum had originally been on our itinerary for day two, it was bumped to our final day within the city. This worked all for the better, as we were now more comfortable navigating the city and could take our time.
Upon a close look at a few maps – we did not have ONE single map that could suffice – we slowly ventured out into the alleys. The medersa was deceptively far from our Riad. Looking at GoogleMaps would have had us believe we were just a short jaunt away, but the reality was a long roundabout walk through the medina.
We carefully made our way through the streets, ensuring that we did not get lost. As we made our way through the streets, we would go slow and turn around every time we felt we were losing ourselves. Over the course of what must have been nearly two hours, we returned to some spot over a dozen times to recalibrate.
The method proved very useful though, as we were able to familiarize ourself with the various alleys, souks, and squares – keeping our bearings and our wits. Interestingly – perhaps because we seemed to have an air of determination – we were bothered less by the touts trying to sell us something, or bring us to the tanneries.
Finding Ben Youssef was not as easy as we thought it would be though. Located in the heart of medina, there is no simple roadway leading to the school. We passed through a street selling clothing numerous times as we retraced our steps to ensure we did not get lost.
But of course, we still made a few wrong turns. At one point we found an an alley filled with raw leather to be sold – not the tanneries! And we had to retrace a few times, nearly giving up.
Thankfully, we started to see a few signs indicating that we were close. They weren’t particularly helpful, but they were encouraging. The roads opened up from claustrophobic alleys to brilliant red walled “boulevards” when we finally found our destination.
A tiled sign indicated the entrance opposite the entry hall. Here, we were ushered into a hall full of arabesque mosaic and tile. Even just a few feet in, the chaos of the streets died away to a relative calm within. The ticket booth is located just a few feet in, at a reasonable price of 20 MAD (~$2) each. While their website states it being higher – it isn’t.
The Medersa – or Madrasa – was an Islamic school, named after the Almoravid sultan Ali ibn Yusuf who had greatly expanded and influenced Marrakech in the early 1100s. The madrasa itself was not constructed until several centuries later in 14th century. It was then aligned with the neighboring Ben Youssef Mosque.
At the Madrasa, the students would study the scriptures of the Quran and join the scholarly class. In this process, they would become Islamic scholars, Imams, and Muftis. Imams, are considered the spiritual leaders of Islam, usually leading the community in prayer – not to be confused with the Muezzin who makes the call to prayer from the minarets. Muftis, are a higher order, and are educated in Islamic Law and can be consulted for what is acceptable for Muslims.
The school consisted of 130+ dorms for students and is estimated to have held up to 900 students at one time.
The rooms were small and simple, yet they still contained the rich and intricate artisan work found throughout the entirety of the school.
The central courtyard, notable for its fountain, was bustling with tourists and activity. It provides some of the greatest examples of Arabesque art in the entire building – if not city. Marble, plaster, tile, and cedar wood all expertly come together in unique and beautiful designs.
The oration hall connects directly to the main courtyard, containing a really nice Mihrab on the Qibla Wall. It is here that the orator would sit while reading scripture to students.
The second floor contains most of the dorms and classrooms. Here we found ourselves more alone, and able to take in the Madrasa away from all the other tourists.
Light filtered through skylights and windows, letting in just the occasional sound from the busy streets below.
We took our time, and were able to spend about an hour and half (maybe two hours) within Ben Youssef Madrasa. It can certainly be done quicker if you’re on a tight schedule. Considering there is little to no signage or informational plaques to keep you busy. But the detailed work warrants a slower pace if you can afford the time.