You who enter my door, may your highest hopes be exceeded reads an inscription over the entrance to the Ben Youssef Madrasa in Marrakech, and after centuries, the blessing still works its charms on visitors.
Built almost 500 years ago during the Marinid era, the Ali Ben Youssef Madrasa was once the largest Islamic college in North Africa and housed more than 900 students within its exquisite walls. It ceased to function as an Islamic college in 1960, but the madrasa still exudes splendor, studious calm and remains among the most magnificent Islamic colleges.
The courtyard is a mind-boggling profusion of ornament with a Carrara marble and water basin, the walls and columns decorated with Moorish zellige tiles forming geometrically-patterned mosaics, and sculptures, stuccoes, and Atlas cedar windows with carved vines.
A prayer hall sits off the main courtyard, and contains some of the most stunning decorations. Here, three naves are bordered by arch-bearing pillars with ornamental motifs, the walls decorated with holy inscriptions and more tile work. Look up and you’ll see a dome crafted from cedar wood with 24 small mosaic windows.
You can also explore the 132 tiny dormitory cells where the students were distributed. Some of them are so small that you have to crouch down to enter, and some of which afford glimpses into the main courtyard below. It was interesting to step in a cell to see how the students used to live.
Although many guides do not consider it to be one of the top sites to visit in Marrakech, it would a shame to miss it. I was a bit sceptic about the Ali Ben Youssef Madrasa, but it’s definitely worth it. Come in the morning, when all is hushed and tranquil and the early sun highlights the exquisitely disciplined beauty of the place.
NOTE: Unfortunately the Ali Ben Youssef Madrasa is currently closed for an extensive renovation works until 2020. There is no official date for the reopening at the moment. The entrance fee will probably be around $5 US.