The peace, beauty and tranquility of Madersa Ben Youssef Marrakech
On my very first visit to Marrakech the Medersa Ben Youssef was part of my city tour. I’d seen the square and the mosque, I’d wandered around the souk and had a neck massage and a sit down at the apothecary, now it was time for some culture.
I felt quite rested after my mint tea and massage and it was a fairly short walk to The Medersa Ben Youssef. This Islamic college is the largest in Morocco and was once home to almost one thousand students who spent their days memorising the Qur’an. Normally, just like mosques, medersas are not open to non Muslims but this one was closed in 1960 and is now open to tourists.
Like most Moroccan buildings it’s build around a central courtyyard, but rather than a garden, in the centre of the cool white marble, there is a pool tiled in blue, white, black and terracotta zellij tiles. Unlike normal courtyards, this is not open to the sky and the dim light is supplied by a small unglazed window above.
According to Mohammed the pool is where the students washed before praying. The bottom part of the walls is decorated with zellij tiles in a typically Moroccan circular pattern and above these they are ornately carved. Mohammed pointed out that none of the carvings were of humans or animals as this is not allowed by Islam. Most are geometric patterns but some are actually Islamic inscriptions, the writing is hard to distinguish from the patterns but he showed me where the word Allah was written, the shape it makes is like a right hand with thumb and little finger made into a circle and the other three fingers raised and slightly separated. At the back there is a prayer hall covered with carved pinecones and palm leaves. It must have taken years and lots of patience to complete.
Up a narrow stairway the student’s rooms run around the courtyard with small arched windows looking out onto the pool. The only light comes from the sun shining through the windows, It’s hard to imagine so many students crowded into these tiny, dark rooms with no real amenities. It must have been noisy and smelly but the view they had is amazing.
On another trip I went back with Commando. The variations of light and shade give it such an air of calm and quiet it feels as if you should speak in a whisper. He agreed it’s the perfect place to recover from the madness of the medina.