Like most guided visitors to Marrakech, we were taken through a series of narrow, poorly lit passageways on our way to the Ali Beb Yousseff Medersa. The medersa (Koranic school) dates from 1565 and is the oldest and largest of its type in North Africa.
As soon as we entered, we were struck by the tranquillity. The narrow, cool, and dark corridors were full of hushed visitors who, despite the fact that this is no longer a holy teaching establishment, seemed to be showing a high degree of reverence. And then we exited into the light, bright internal courtyard, with the sound of running water as it gushed into a vibrantly tiled pool at the centre. This space is full of beautiful mosaics and ornate plasterwork. The ceiling towered above us, and it’s not difficult to imagine this place when it was full of students, with their excited and yet studious discussions, filling this courtyard with a cacophony of sounds.
Above us, we saw the first-floor arched windows inset into the beautifully carved plasterwork. This was where the students slept. A climb up a narrow staircase, and we were viewing the student bedrooms. I use the term advisedly because the dark, austere rooms were little more than primitive cells and it was evident that the students were only expected to pray or sleep in these rooms. Their arched entrances were just tall enough to allow me to enter without crouching, and once again, there was evidence of intricate carvings on the wooden trellising, the plaster arches, and the walls. What an eye for detail.
Overall, the student accommodation overlooks seven separate courtyards, all linked by a series of dingy, narrow corridors and steep staircases.
With great solemnity, the prayer hall was shown with its intricately carved, cedar wood ceiling and walls displaying carefully carved Koranic calligraphy. I don’t think we saw any spaces in this building that hadn’t been subjected to some kind of carving, painting, tiling, or mosaic application. I’m sure many had real religious meaning, but our guide was "unable to explain the meaning of the artwork to us," so we were just left to marvel at the intricate nature of the designs. Throughout the building, the recurring theme of arches and crescents predominated, with the sound of water fountains "echoing" through the buildings.
Clearly, the building has been subjected to major renovation; indeed, it was still taking place at the time of our visit, but the building is a great example of Islamic architecture. Despite the fact that there were "men at work" at the time of our visit, all the tasks seemed to be carried out in a muted sound. The building whispers, "Respect me," and all of the visitors seem to hear that message.
My lasting memory of this place of learning will be the feeling that, despite its central position, it felt remote and cut off from the rest of Marrakesh. Was this by design? I think so!