No visit to Marrakech would be complete without a visit to the Medersa Ben Youssef, an Islamic school attached to the Ben Youssef Mosque; home to some of the most beautiful art and architecture you will come across whist in Morocco.
Once one of the largest Theological Schools in North Africa with the capacity to teach up to 900 students, each student spending their time here learning the Qur’an by heart. Up to 132 students would live here at any one time, spending hour after hour in their tiny room memorising a scripture that is cherished by every Muslim.
The college was founded during the 14th Century by the Sultan, Abu al-Hassan, and was then reconstructed by the Saasian Sultan, Abdallah al-Ghalib, in 1565. The building, as you see it today, was only refurbished in the early 1980’s before opening as a historical site in 1982.
As we started to wander around this amazing building, mouths agog at all the fine woodwork in the ceiling, a gentleman appeared out of the shadows and offered to show us around and enlighten us on the history of this visual beauty.
He explained that during his 25 years teaching he has seen several students pass through the doors; each one taking 5 years to learn and recite the holy book. His English was bitty but with his numerous hand gestures and warm smiles we were able to understand the main points that he was trying to get across. He pointed out where 100’s of students would go each day to pray towards Mecca, how the pools were used for the cleansing rituals before each prayer (wudu) and walked us around the narrow, decorative corridors of the living quarters. At each stage he paused allowing us to take photo after photo of the incredible mosaic designs that littered every surface around us. The workmanship was outstanding and I can imagine that the families of those individuals involved in their creation are today still very proud of their ancestors.
This is a building that you can spend your time in, sitting in the shadows, relaxing and taking it all in. No-one rushes you around and, whilst we were there at least, there were no tour bus groups passing through – not that you would get a tour bus down the winding, twisting walkways leading up to the entrance but I think you get my point.
Included in the ticket price is the entrance fee for The Musee Marrakech, which is about 100m down the alleyway. Many had told us not to bother visiting and we were in two minds whether to slink off at this point and spend the afternoon people watching in the square over a mint tea; what a mistake that would have been. Again the building itself is eye-catching. As you dip your head through the diminutive gateway the terracotta façade welcomes you in. At this point if you don’t want to go any further there is a small café to the side where you can sit in the shade and enjoy a nice cooling drink in the small, very green garden.
Inside, the corridors seem to stretch on for miles and miles. The zellij tiles used to line the walkways are glossy jade in colour and draw you into the large covered courtyard where yet more zellij tiles cover not only the floor but the walls as well. In one corner is a fountain, that still works, covered in a mosaic pattern that I cannot help but stand and stare at.
Aside from the decoration this museum, a former palace, is now home to many archaeological items and contemporary art exhibitions: old definitely meets new here.
People are sat around on the floors and on the window sills taking it all in. Some are there to appreciate the new artists showing their work, some have visited to find out more about the history of this growing country and others are intrigued by the architecture housed within this striking building. The thick walls of this once grand home welcomes everyone; you can easily spend a couple of hours sauntering around the chilly passageways exploring, thankful to be out of the afternoon heat.
Both of these attractions can be found in the quiet part of the medina, just north of the souks. The Musee Marrakech is opposite the Qoubba Almoravide, founded in 1064, which is the last vestige of the Almoravids and was, at one time, the center of ablution for the believers at the large mosque still active next door.
You can easily spend your day enjoying the tranquility of this area of Marrakech before hitting the souks for some haggling in the evening.
Our Tips: Take the time and visit both the Medersa and the Museum. Both together cost 60Dhs per person (just over £4). It is also worth spending some time with a guide in the Medersa. We gave our guide 50Dhs (around £3.60) for his time (although it may be worth finding someone that can speak more English).