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The Jewel of Marrakech

Inside Madrasa Ben Youssef
Madrasa Ben Youssef courtyard
Arches in the Madrasa Ben Youssef courtyard

The foremost university of theology and law in North Africa from the 14th century, today it is one visit you will not want to miss in Marrakech.
The Madrasa Ben Youssef is iconic in the city. It is one of the best loved and most visited anywhere in Morocco. It is not only the construction that makes it a jewel of Arab-Andalusian architecture; it is primarily a symbol of the importance and power once held by Marrakech, particularly between the 14th and 16th centuries. Madrasas are the institutions where religious teachings are taught. In a religion-based culture, like Islam, it is easy to grasp the relevance and prestige these buildings have; it was here that the future governors and most influential people of the city received instruction. The more powerful the city, the more significant the madrasa that educates its people.

The Madrasa de Ben Youssef was built in the 14th century as the seat of the Muslim university of theology and law. It takes its name from Ali Ben Youssef, son and heir of the founder of Marrakech. Situated next to the city’s oldest mosque, the madrasa became the biggest and most famous Quranic college in North Africa. The complex comprised the Quranic university and the student residence, which in their time, housed up to 900 students. In the 16th century it was completely renovated by the sultans of the Saadian dynasty (Arab people of southern Morocco who claimed to be descendants of the Prophet Muhammad).

One of its key features is the contrast between the luxury of the courtyard, which was often used as a classroom, and the austerity and simplicity of the students’ rooms upstairs. A welcome message is inscribed on the lintel of the doorway at the main entrance. The lobby leads out to the most breathtaking space in the whole building: the central courtyard, with a shallow fountain in the centre where the students performed their ablutions before prayer. The courtyard has covered arcades along the sides. At one end, an archway leads to the rectangular prayer room, with marble columns from Carrara that emphasize the pyramidal ceiling. The entrance to the mihrab shares many similarities with the Mosque of Cordoba and has a stunning carved cedar ceiling decorated with stucco. Spread around the courtyard on the ground and first floor, the spartan student cells or dormitories are a sharp contrast to the courtyard and prayer room.

The Madrasa of Marrakech remained in operation until the mid 20th century. In 1960, it was officially closed and after some decades of abandonment and decay, was refurbished in 1982 as a tourist attraction. It is currently one of the most visited sites in the city by travelers from all over the world. Entrance includes access to two other historic sites: the Marrakech Museum and the Almoravid Koubba Ba'Adyin.

The Origin of the Red Colour of Marrakech

According to legend, when the Almohad sultans built the Mosque of Koutoubia in the 12th century, one of the largest in North Africa, and placed it in the heart of the city, so much blood poured out that the buildings remained forever stained.

Thousands of Years of History

The Koubba is the oldest building in Marrakech. It was built in the 11th century by Ben Youssef, and formed part of a mosque, of which no trace remains today. It remained buried until 1952, which is why it is so excellently preserved.