Founded in the 14th century and reconstructed in the mid-1500s, the Ben Youssef Madrasa is the largest in Marrakech, Morocco, and one of the most important in North Africa. Once a glorious college, it was abandoned in the 18th century and fell into disrepair. The madrasa was closed down in the 1960s but remains one of the finest buildings in Marrakesh. It is now a historical site and on UNESCO’s World Heritage List.
Madrasa is an Arabic word for any kind of educational, either secular or religious, institution. Outside of the Arabic world, the word refers to religious schools where Islam is studied. The Ben Youssef Madrasa was built during the reign of the Saadian sultan Abdallah al-Ghalib during the 16th century, named after the neighboring Ben Youssef Mosque, the main mosque of the city built in the 12th century. When first built, it stood as a modest building but was later reconstructed during the Saadian reign. By 1565, after the completion of the reconstruction, it became one of the most impressive madrasas in North Africa. Reportedly, it was able to house about 900 students, which is impressive considering the capacity of the student dormitory cells of 130.
From the doorway, through a narrow corridor, visitors, unexpectedly, arrive at the main courtyard. A common trait in most Islamic buildings, the entrance process of the madrassa is carefully designed to draw astonishment and revelation. The layout of the building centers around the main courtyard.
The ornamentation of the Madrasa was inspired by the early Moroccan and Andalusi architecture, which makes use of water features like pools, fountains, gardens, and intricately carved stucco and wood. The decorative pieces, especially, follow traditional architectural features like mosaic tilework called zellige used along the lower walls, calligraphic pieces, muqarnas (ornamented vaults), and ornately carved eaves. The motifs, again, include traditional elements like calligraphy and arabesque.