Learning about Islam with Ben Youssef

The Ben Youssef Madrasa is an Islamic school attached to the Ben Youssef Mosque, and is home to some of the most beautiful art and architecture in the whole of Marrakech.

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The madrasa, where students memorized the Qur’an, was founded by the Merenid Sultan Abou el Hassan in the 14th century. It was, however, almost completely rebuilt under the Saadian rulers in the 1560s and it is they who made their distinctive mark in its architecture and art. This architecture is simply mesmerising.

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The madrasa centres around a large courtyard with a central pool for ablutions. The buildings are covered in an abundance of decoration: carved cedarwood, exquisite stuccowork, and colourful zellij tiles. Some elements are remarkably similar to the Alhambra palace in Granada, indicating that Andalusian artists were likely brought from Spain for the project.

Above the central courtyard are the small windows of the tiny student dormitories. The rooms are arranged around smaller inner courtyards, rimmed with fine wood railings. Nearly 900 students were once housed here, and it’s difficult to imagine how they all squeezed in. Via stairs in the entry vestibule, visitors can explore all the rooms and enjoy good views over the courtyard.

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Throughout the madrasa complex are many Arabic inscriptions in stucco and zellij tile, the most common of which is the bismillah invocation: “In the name of Allah, the Compassionate, and the Merciful”. I am not a Muslim myself but it was quite humbling to experience this kind of atmosphere and in such a beautiful locale.

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At the back of the courtyard is a sizable prayer hall, which contains the most elaborate decoration. The interior is covered in an abundance of pine cone and palm motifs, which are used around the mihrab to create a three-dimensional appearance.

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