Photo by Thomas Dressler/Age Fotostock. This appeared in the July/August 2011 issue.
Ben Youssef Medersa, Marrakech
At Ben Youssef Medersa, a 16th-century Koranic boarding school turned museum, visitors can see colorful mosaic zellij tiles and intricate stucco carvings inscribed with Muslim invocations. —Jennye Garibaldi
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Medersa Ben Youssef, Marrakech, Morocco
The Medersa Ben Youssef is the largest medersa in North Africa and one of Marrakech's most picturesque buildings. In the heart of the souks, this medersa--a theological college--once boarded some 900 students for religious study.
Built around 1565 and rebuilt in the 16th century, it features exquisite details of Moroccan architecture.
The Moorish archways displayed here are from the prayer hall and open to a large, light-filled rectangular courtyard, where clusters of students would gather around their teachers (sheikhs). Every surface of the courtyard is elaborately decorated.
Colorful mosaic (zellij) tiles in a repetitive star pattern cover the lower part of the columns. Above the tiles are bands of Koranic text interwoven with floral designs. On the stucco are panels of plaster carved with patterns (geometric and palm motifs) or inscriptions (calligraphy). Depictions of animals and humans are prohibited by Islam.
Entry is allowed to non-muslims. A ticket provides access to Medersa Ben Youssef, Musee de Marrakech and Koubba El Badiyin.
For days, my travel partner and I used the address placard that simply read “Medersa Ben Youssef” as a navigational marker to get from our riad to the souk in Marrakesh. One late afternoon, we finally decided to check the place out.
The Medersa Ben Youssef is an extraordinarily well preserved 16th century Qur’anic school. The entry doors lead down a passageway to a central courtyard; the surrounding façades are covered with Moroccan zellij tiles, carved cedar wood doors and vertical panels of intricately carved plaster complete the design. Stunning place but I’m glad I didn’t end my visit to the Medersa here.
Upstairs there are small dorm rooms, some of which overlook the courtyard. I entered one room to check out the view. Immediately, my eyes locked on this magnificent window frame. I completely forgot all about the courtyard below. Can you blame me?
Purportedly, the Sultan who refurbished the Medersa in the 16th century had artisans brought over from Andalusia to carve the stucco. Only a skilled artisan can transform plain, dull stucco into something that looks as delicate and exquisite as fine European lace!
Medersa Ben Youssef is located in the Marrakesh medina, a bit away from the other cultural landmarks. Walking through the medina, the Medersa is not easy to find but it’s worth the effort. Help is all around but be prepared to give a tip. Look for the simple address placard, buy your admission ticket, and have your breath taken away!