The Ben Youssef Madrasa is the largest madrasa in Morocco and one of the largest and most important in North Africa. Founded in the 14th century and later expanded, it ceased to function as an Islamic college in 1960, but remains one of the finest buildings in Marrakesh.
The college was founded in the 14th century during the reign of the Marinid sultan Abu al-Hassan, taking its name from the neighboring Ben Youssef Mosque. Initially a modest madrasa, it was later reconstructed during the Saadian Dynasty by the Abdallah al-Ghalib, the second Saadian sultan of Morocco.
Upon the completion of these works in 1565, the Ben Youssef Madrasa stood as one of the largest and most splendid theological colleges in North Africa. For more than four centuries, it housed as many as 900 students, an impressive feat considering the cramped nature of the building’s 130 student dormitory cells.
The madrasa ceased to function as a college in 1960 but was renovated and opened to the public in 1982. Historical significance aside, the madrasa draws in visitors who come to marvel at its intricate decorations that have drawn comparisons with the Alhambra in Granada, Spain (and leading some to conclude that artists may have been brought from Andalusia to work on the madrasa).
Walk along the street outside the madrasa, and you could easily pass by without a second glance at the main entrance, a fairly nondescript wooden door save for an inscription that reads: “You who enter my door, may your highest hopes be exceeded.” But inside lies a cool central courtyard with a marble patio and water basin, the walls and columns decorated with Moorish zellige tiles forming geometrically-patterned mosaics, and sculptures, stuccoes, and cedar windows with carved vines.
A prayer hall sits off the main courtyard, and contains some of the most impressive decorations. Here, three naves are bordered by arch-bearing marble pillars with ornamental motifs of pine cones and palms motifs, the walls decorated with Islamic calligraphy and more zellige tile work. Look up and you’ll see a dome crafted from cedar wood with 24 small mosaic windows.
Back out in the courtyard, you can see the tiny windows of the student dormitories looking down from the first floor. You can explore the 130 or so cells of the madrasa, some so small you have to crouch down to enter, and some offering slight but atmospheric views of the courtyard below.