on May 29, 2011
I love Islamic architecture and one of the great disappointments for me when visiting Morocco is that tourists – in fact anyone who isn't a Muslim – are not allowed to enter mosques. There are just two exceptions to this - the Hassan II mosque in Casablanca and the Tin Mal mosque up in the Atlas mountains. Neither you'll have noticed is in Marrakech so your visit to the city is going to be entirely mosque-less. The rule – I'm reliably informed – was introduced by the French in colonial times although I've never got to the bottom of why they came up with it. But rules are rules and so you just have to go along with them. Fortunately in Marrakech there's a religious building that is open to the public which will give you a glimpse of classic Islamic architecture and that's the Ben Youssef Medersa. A Medersa is a form of Islamic college where students go to learn the Koran. This one was founded in the 14th Century and takes its name from the nearby Ben Youssef Mosque which in turn was named for a 12th century sultan of the same name. Most of what visitors will see today was built in the 16th century and has been renovated since the college closed back in the 1960s. You do not need to worry about disturbing anyone at their religious devotions because today the medersa is not used for teaching and has instead become one of the city's top tourist attractions.On our first visit to Morrocco about 8 or 9 years ago, we were taken to see the medersa and our tour guide used it as a great way to introduce us to some of the classic elements of Islamic architecture and design. With some of that teaching still embedded in my mind – and many more visits to mosques and other Islamic religious places since then – I was pretty sure we could show my sister and her girlfriend around without needing to join a guided tour during our recent holiday.The Sunni form of Islam places a lot of very strict constraints on architects and decorators which are noticeably absent in the Shia form. Sunni Islam bans the depiction of people, animals and the like and with that in mind, artisan craftsmen developed highly decorative devices that rely on the use of geometric designs and calligraphy. These include the use of tiling, painting, carving and stuccowork, all of which are in evidence at the Ben Youssef Medersa. The classic 'Rose of Islam' design of tiling is particularly noticeable. You'll also see stucco work, lots of intricately carved wood and the use of both geometric designs and glorious calligraphy. The medersa has some lovely examples of a type of tilework whose name I can't remember but it involves the glossy front of the tile being chipped away to leave the calligraphy standing out proud against a neutral background. The layout of the Medersa is a classic example of such buildings throughout the Muslim world. There's a central courtyard with an ablutions pool where people perform their cleansing rituals before proceeding to the covered prayer hall beyond. Down either side of this courtyard are a series of small 'cells' where the students lived and slept and beyond them smaller inner courtyards of tiny and very simple rooms arranged around wooden balconies. The windows of some of these rooms look down over the courtyard and tourists line up to get their photographs taken staring wistfully out of them. Other rooms are arranged around smaller inner courtyards or light wells, clustered down either side of the building. The doorways are particularly eye-catching with highly decorated arches and finely carved wooden doors hung inside them. They won't keep out the drafts but they look fabulous.The Ben Youssef Medersa is a fabulous visual feast that showcases the best of Moroccan architecture and design. I've seen it three times now and I can't stop myself from going back time and time again. The Medersa is open every day so don't believe anyone who tries to tell you that it isn't and lures you off to a shop or stings you for a 'private tour' of somewhere you weren't planning to go. The entrance fee is 50 dirhams but for another 10 Dirhams on top you get access to the Marrakech Museum and a strange old bathhouse on the same ticket. The bathhouse is a bit of a non-event but the Marrakech Museum is well worth the supplement.
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