The old medina of Marrakech is full of hidden treasures. There is the bustling, anarchic chaos of the souk and Jemaa el-Fnaa square, the majesty of the Bahia palace and the Koutoubia mosque, and countless concealed gems to discover in the most unexpected places, from restaurants and bars, to art galleries and museums, to archaeological sites and historic relics. In recent years, many of this latter group have been hidden from public view due to Covid-19 and various restoration projects. The historic Jewish quarter, the Mellah, was reopened in 2019 following a glorious restoration. The Saadien Tombs also underwent a subtle retouching that has given the masonry and ceramics an exquisite finish without betraying the traditional design. Now, in 2022, Marrakech’s visitors and residents have finally been treated to the reopening of perhaps the most spectacular of all of the medina’s secrets, the Medersa Ben Youssef.
The Medersa, which means religious school, is located in Kaat Benahid in the heart of the medina, at least fifteen minutes walk from any of the ancient doors, or “Babs,” of the old city. Founded in the 14th century, it became one of the Islamic world’s most prolific centers of learning, serving as a school for almost five centuries until it stopped taking students in 1960. It was at one time North Africa’s largest Medersa, covering an expanse of some 1,500 square meters. The institution boasts some 130 rooms and, at its height, could accommodate as many as 1,000 students at a time.
Like other large medersas, while the school specialized in religious education, a wide range of subjects were taught. Reminiscent of what is often called the “golden age” in the Arab world, a period that saw intellectual breakthroughs such as the invention of algebra, science, literature, and history also formed cornerstones of the curriculum. Now a museum, the Medersa was included in King Mohammed VI’s 2017 list of sites in need of elaborate restorations in order to preserve the historic heritage of Morocco. It was closed to the public for over five years from January 2017 to April 2022. It was set to reopen in the summer of 2020, but the renovations were extended due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
The school is a symbol of the history of the region and even the story of its construction and renovation reveals the influence of multiple epochs. Upon visiting, one is struck immediately by a deep sense of history, a sense no doubt imbued upon countless students for centuries. The Medersa was built in the 14th century by Sultan Abu al-Hasan of the Merenid dynasty. It was then renovated by the Saadian sultan Abdallah el-Ghalib, with this work being completed in 1565. Finally, the school is named for Sultan Ali Ben Youssef, who lived in the 12th century.
Ben Youssef’s clan, the Almoravids, founded the city of Marrakech under the leadership of his father, the iconic ruler Youssef Ben Tachfine. [In retrospect, the father may have been a better choice when looking for a leader after whom to name the school as Ben Ali is generally regarded to have squandered the grand legacy of Ben Tachfine].The Almoravids were renowned for their dedication to learning and to the arts, and the influence of this legacy becomes immediately apparent upon stepping foot inside the Medersa.
Old medinas are places where unimaginable wonders are shrouded behind unassuming doors, and the Medersa Ben Youssef is no exception. The solitary entrance consists of a humble wooden door, similar to that of any storefront. A fitting inscription just inside reads: “You who enter my door, may your highest hopes be exceeded.” And, for all but the most indifferent of sightseers, they surely are.
Visitors begin by making their way along a deceptively modest passageway, replete with simple yet elegant stonework. Such intricate hallways wind on and on through the Medersa, giving a glimpse of what it was like for the students of centuries past, treading the snaking route between classrooms, living quarters, and hammams. Turning right at the end of this first passage reveals the jewel in the crown – the magnificent interior patio.
Open to the sky, the contrast between the dimly lit tunnel and the sudden, brilliant light creates a marvelous, initially almost overwhelming effect. When the eyes have adjusted, the sight of the courtyard’s expanse causes a genuine catch in the breath, and it is not uncommon to hear gasps of awe from first-time visitors.
The contrast is one not only of light but of space. The breadth of the patio imparts a sense of openness that is deliciously juxtaposed with the narrow streets and cramped tunnels one has to navigate in order to reach it. The architecture is Andalusian and recalls the AlHambra palace in Granada and the Great Mosque in Cordoba, built when the Almoravid empire stretched from modern day Senegal to Spain.
Yet the architecture manages to draw one’s eyes to the micro as well as the macro. Even by Moroccan standards, the ceramic work is peerless. The vast walls and floors of the courtyard are bedazzled with sumptuous tiles, cut and painted in the traditional North African zellige style. In the center of the patio, a fountain feeds a shimmering pool – its sound has a transporting effect, imposing the sense of timelessness and calm that, no doubt as for the students of yesteryear, seems to call one to a state of deep contemplation, away from the tumult of the outside world. Atop the pillars, majestic, ornate wood-carvings provide the perfect finish. [It is perhaps this somewhat fleeting relationship with the temporal that made it so difficult in writing this piece to get timely responses to questions from the directors of the Merdersa]. One could spend hours admiring the details in every wall and every pillar, with myriad designs glinting in the dazzling glare of the desert sun.
Turning away from the glow and diving back between the walls of the Medersa reveals more delights. Seemingly endless passageways lead to compact erstwhile lecture rooms, bunk-houses, and bathrooms, with walls thick enough to prevent those on the inside (or on the outside) from being disturbed. The architects of centuries gone by were experts in both the projection and muffling of sound. So too the use of light is ever present, with the corridors punctuated by open skylights, which permeate each story of the building, the sunlight radiating down and illuminating petite balconies at each level. Ascend to the highest of these and one is treated to perhaps the pick of all of the superlative views available in the Medersa – that of the central patio from above.
The Medersa Ben Youssef offers no view out into the medina and the city beyond. This is quite deliberate: the design gives modern visitors the same sensation concocted for the students of old – that of being entirely shut off from the noise and clutter of the outside world. The very architecture of the place therefore, from this inward-looking planning to the geometric ceramic patterns, is designed to foster contemplation and create a fertile cerebral plane for learning. To visit the Merdersa is to confront a precious thing all too lacking in our modern world: the veneration of the inner life of the mind.