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The Magnificent Ben Youssef Madrasa

The Ben Youssef Madrasa (also transliterated as Bin Yusuf or Ibn Yusuf Madrasa) is an Islamic madrasa (college) in Marrakesh, Morocco. Functioning today as a historical site, the Ben Youssef Madrasa was the largest Islamic college in Morocco at its height. The madrasa is named after the adjacent Ben Youssef Mosque founded by the Almoravid Sultan Ali ibn Yusuf (reigned 1106-1142). The madrasa building which stands today was commissioned by the Sa’di (or Saadian) Sultan Abdallah al-Ghalib, following a style established during the earlier Marinid period.

History

The madrasa is named after the adjacent Ben Youssef Mosque, which was originally the main mosque of the city, founded by the Almoravid Sultan Ali ibn Yusuf (reigned 1106-1142 ad.) The first madrasa on this site was founded during the Marinid Islamic dynasty by Sultan Abu al-Hasan (ruled 1331-1348). This dynasty, known for its perpetuation of the arts and literature, ruled from 1196 to 1465 AD and was responsible for constructing many madrasas across Morocco. The current building, however, was constructed by the Saadian Sultan Abdallah al-Ghalib (reign 1557-1574 AD), a major builder of his period, and completed in 1564-65 AD (972 AH).

Historically, madrasas have served as a center for learning, worship and community interaction. In addition to teaching Quranic Tasfeer and Islamic jurisprudence, Islamic schools often taught a wide variety of subjects, including literature, science and history. The Ben Youssef Madrasa, in fulfilling these functions, was also one of the largest theological colleges in North Africa, reportedly able to accommodate upwards of 800 students.

Closed down in 1960, the building was refurbished and reopened to the public as a historical site in 1982. The Ben Youssef Madrasa currently attracts thousands of tourists every year and remains one of the most important historical buildings in Marrakesh. It closed for restoration again in November 2018 and reopened to the public in April 2022.

courtyard with pool of aged islamic college in morocco
Photo by Piotr Arnoldes

Architecture

The madrasa’s floor plan occupies a nearly square space measuring approximately 40 by 43 meters.: 130  The building is entered from a single street entrance, from which a narrow corridor leads to a vestibule chamber, which in turn gives access to the central courtyard. This process of entry, like in many Islamic buildings, is carefully designed to inspire revelation and astonishment in an unexpected opening of space into the main courtyard. The layout of the building centers around the main courtyard, which is surrounded by east and west galleries and student dormitories on the upper and lower levels. Like many Islamic buildings, the courtyard is itself centered around a large shallow reflective pool, measuring approximately 3 by 7 meters. At the southeastern end of the courtyard is another large chamber which served as a prayer hall, equipped with a mihrab (niche symbolizing the direction of prayer) featuring especially rich stucco decoration.

As in classic Marinid madrasas constructed during the century, the layout of the Ben Youssef madrasa contains student dormitory cells clustered around the first and second levels of the central courtyard. The madrasa’s vestibule chamber gives access to two secondary corridors that circulate around the courtyard to give access to the dormitories on the ground floor, while two stairways from the vestibule give access to similar corridors on the second level. The dorm rooms are additionally arranged around a series of six small courtyards (three in the northeast wing, three in the southwest wing) which open on both levels from these corridors. Together, the madrasa consisted of 130 student rooms and housed up to 800 students; making it the largest madrasa in Morocco.

On the ground floor, the eastern corridor from the vestibule also gives access to an ablutions chamber in the northeastern corner of the building. The chamber has a square floor plan with four marble columns upholding four arches below a central cupola of muqarnas (similar to the one in front of the madrasa’s entrance). The middle of the chamber is occupied by a square water basin, while a series of latrine rooms are accessible around the chamber’s perimeter. Notably, it was also in this chamber that an 11th-century marble basin from Cordoba was first noted by Jean Gallotti (a historical arts inspector working for the French Protectorate) in 1921. The basin was removed for study and is now housed at the Dar Si Said Museum.:

Interior of Ben Youssef’s Madrasa in Marrakech (Morocco)
Ben Youssef Medersa
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