We Finally Found the Ben Youssef Madrasa
Have you ever been searching for something and for some reason aren't able to find it? You feel like you're close but never quite close enough? This is exactly how I felt when it came to trying to find the incredibly beautiful Ben Youssef Madrasa. On one hand it was quite frustrating and on the other it may have made me enjoy it all the more when we did eventually find it.
Here's what happened. Upon our arrival at our riad Hotel Aday in the heart of the Marrakech medina, our favorite innkeeper Hamid gave us a local map and circled a few places for us to check out while we were in town. On that list were a couple of palaces, the Marjorelle gardens, the Saadien tombs and the Ben Youssef Madrasa.
I knew that our good friends Antonio and Heather were coming to meet up with us in about 6 days and wanted to make sure we had our bearings by the time they arrived. Each day I would put the girls in the stroller and set out in a different direction to see what I could see. I would usually have something in mind that I was aiming for, but because I wanted to wait to visit the big sites while they were in town I was really only going with hopes of finding where it was located in the medina.
Lets just say our map was beautifully designed but perhaps a bit vague on the details. I now refer to this week as "The Week of Wandering".
I found all sorts of things that week, I visited the tanneries, some palace ruins and spent lots and lots of time in the souks. But even though I set out in the direction of the Madrasa a few days in a row, I somehow never did.
It turns out that we had literally walked by it no fewer than three times. To be fair the first time we missed it I saw this really cool door open at the end of a passageway that led into a free exhibit called "Nomadic Traces" so of course I had to go in and see what it was about.
The next day just as I was walking by the same spot there was a kind older woman who was trying to sell me little, hand sewn, leather giraffes (and whom I was trying to avoid because I already had two). I quickly made my way out of the area.
Finally, I looked closer at the map and realized what had happened. It came down to just looking the other way for a minute as I walked by. Luckily for us, we did find it and I was able to easily lead our friends back there to check it out together.
So just what is a Madrasa? I spent so much time looking for one and barely even knew what it was. We learned that it was and Islamic college where students would go to learn the Koran. It was founded in the 14th century and was active as a school until 1960. At its peak it housed as many as 900 students. After it closed as a school it was refurbished and opened to the public about 20 years later.
While it may have been easy to miss from the outside, the inside was stunningly beautiful. There are 130 student dorms on two levels surrounding a main courtyard that is richly carved in cedar, marble and stucco. The carving and details were incredible and true to Islamic tradition didn't contain any representations of humans or animals as the creation of life is left for God alone.
Hands down my favorite part of all the architectural details was the zellige tilework. It is basically really intricate mosaic tiling and in this case it was arranged in geometric and flower designs. The tile designs even worked perfectly into the corners. Having recently helped my mom tile her kitchen backsplash, I can appreciate how difficult that must be with regular tiles. I can't imagine how crazy it must've been with all the shapes they were working with which of course all had to be hand shaped as well.
After you pay to get in, they pretty much leave you to explore on your own and there weren't many areas that were off limits. Aurora was a big fan of the small student dorms that filled the upper levels. The fact that they had tiny doors and a window that she kept saying "is just my size" made it difficult to get her to leave to explore the other areas. I wish there had been pictures of how the rooms were furnished when the students lived there. I imagined them being pretty cool but it could've just been a couple sleeping mats and a koran.
There were a ton of the student rooms so we really only went into less than ten of them, after you've seen a stucco-walled white room once you really don't need to see too many more. The rooms were actually surprisingly cool in temperature for being in such a hot climate. It had me wondering how they worked their magic when building it. Perhaps when I build my Moroccan dream home in the deserts of Arizona I'll explore that a bit more.
I was so glad that we finally found this place and got to go inside but I wish that there was more information about what went on inside the walls of the school. Even without the extra information it was fun to explore and incredible to see the expert craftsmanship that must've gone into making the Madrasa so gorgeous. I would certainly have been inspired by my surroundings if I was a student there.
PLANNING A VISIT?
Ben Youssef Madrasa (Kaat Benahid, Marrakech 40000, Morocco)
Adults tickets are 2 Euros
Open from 8am - 5pm Monday to Sunday