The Ben Youssef Madrasa in Marrakesh, Morocco, is a stunning example of Islamic architecture and an important historical site in the city. Once a prominent Islamic college in the Maghreb, the madrasa now serves as a captivating destination for tourists, offering a glimpse into the region’s rich cultural heritage.
The madrasa is named after the adjacent Ben Youssef Mosque, originally founded by the Almoravid Sultan Ali ibn Yusuf in the early 12th century. The first madrasa on the site was likely constructed during the Marinid dynasty by Sultan Abu al-Hasan in the 14th century. The Marinids were known for their patronage of arts and literature, and they established several madrasas across Morocco.
In the 16th century, during the reign of the Saadian Sultan Abdallah al-Ghalib, the Ben Youssef Madrasa as we see it today was commissioned and constructed. The construction of the madrasa followed a style established during the earlier Marinid period, and it eventually became the largest madrasa in the Maghreb, capable of accommodating up to 800 students.
Architecture and Layout
The madrasa’s layout centers around a large, nearly square courtyard, measuring approximately 40 by 43 meters. The main entrance leads to a narrow corridor, which opens into a vestibule chamber that grants access to the central courtyard. The courtyard is surrounded by galleries on the east and west sides, while student dormitories are located on the upper and lower levels.
At the southeastern end of the courtyard is a prayer hall equipped with a mihrab, a niche that symbolizes the direction of prayer (Qibla). The prayer hall features rich stucco decorations, a characteristic of Moroccan and Andalusi architecture.
The dormitory cells are clustered around the courtyard and are arranged around a series of six small courtyards, creating a harmonious and functional living and learning space for the students. In total, the madrasa consists of 130 student rooms, making it the largest madrasa in Morocco during its heyday.
The Ben Youssef Madrasa’s ornamentation draws inspiration from earlier Moroccan and Andalusi architectural traditions. The building is adorned with zellij (mosaic tilework), intricately carved stucco, and wooden elements, including ornate eaves. The arches of the ground-floor galleries in the courtyard feature stucco consoles supporting carved wooden lintels.
The main central courtyard is especially visually striking, with its symmetrical arrangement and decorative elements. Calligraphic friezes, Qur’anic verses, and traditional motifs such as arabesques and muqarnas (stalactite-like sculpting) enrich the walls and ceilings of the madrasa.
Restoration and Tourism
The Ben Youssef Madrasa was closed down in 1960 and subsequently refurbished. It was reopened to the public as a historical site in 1982, becoming a major attraction for tourists visiting Marrakesh. The madrasa underwent another restoration process, starting in November 2018, and reopened to the public in April 2022.
Today, thousands of visitors flock to the Ben Youssef Madrasa to admire its architectural beauty, learn about its history, and immerse themselves in the rich cultural heritage it represents. As one of the most important historical buildings in Marrakesh, the madrasa continues to captivate and inspire visitors from around the world.