We had spent our morning at the Saadian tombs and the Bahiaa palace and planned to visit the Medrasa Ben Youssef later that day. However, first it was time for a relaxing lunch. We had found a beautiful roof top restaurant, A Dejeuner, where we got a table in the sun. The food was Moroccan with a modern twist, the portions on the small side but delicious. Even better, as we could squeeze in a yummy dessert and Jerome’s favourite, a mint tea. The sun was pleasantly warm and kept us there for longer than we had intended. Back downstairs we found ourselves in the buzz of the souks. By now we had grown wary of all the goods for sale and just headed straight through the stalls, ignoring any attempts of the vendors to sell us anything.
We headed straight past Jemaa El-Fna towards the Medrasa Ben Youseff. We had to go back deep into the northern part of souk, which we had explored on our first morning in Marrakech. We did not see any signposts for the Medrasa and were glad to have stored the map of the souk on google maps. In case you have trouble finding it, ask the stallholders for directions.
We passed restaurant Nomad, a trendy café and restaurant with a beautiful roof terrace, and a square out front with an open air market that sold mainly straw baskets and tarboosh (Moroccan hats).
We headed north from here, past the Musee de Marrakesh until we finally reached the entrance to the old Quran School, Ben Youssef. The school’s history dates back to the 14th century when it was founded by the Merenids, under the head of Ali Ben Youssef. The Medrasa building we visited that day was not built but Ali Ben Youssef but over a hundred years later by one of his successors. It used to house around 900 students, who lived in the 132 dorm cells throughout the building. It was once the largest Quran School in North Africa and still remains among the most splendid. We entered the school through a narrow hallway into the amazing courtyard, the main feature of the building. At the centre of the courtyard we could see a large empty pool, it is filled with water at times and must make the courtyard even more spectacular, especially on a sunny day. The surrounding walls and arcades are covered in the five-colour zellij (Moroccan tiles) for up to a meter on the walls, with ornate stucco archways above. The most impressive features of the building are the walls above, covered in intricate stucco and carved cedar wood. Above every arch we noticed windows with people looking into the courtyard from above.
Jerome was desperate to go and find the stairs to the first floor, to look out of one of the windows himself. I stayed downstairs admiring the details of the stucco and wood as he went off to explore the maze of rooms. At the far end, opposite the entrance to the courtyard I found a tiny room, entirely covered in marble, with a stunning domed ceiling. This room is called a mihrab, a traditional niche usually found in a mosque that indicates the direction of Mecca. Back outside in the courtyard I found Jerome peeping out of one of the windows to the dormitories that surround the courtyard, a great opportunity to take a photo of him.
I then walked back into the building to find Jerome and Chris and to have a look at the cells myself. Once upstairs I walked along another narrow hallway. To one side I found the cells overlooking the courtyard, to the other side were little light wells, with wooden balconies surrounding tiny courtyards on the ground floor. There were three dark cells off each of these courtyards, without any windows and bare floors. It must have been a hard life for the pupils of the school, to live in these bare small rooms squeezed in with many other pupils, it almost must have felt like a prison. Unfortunately I could not find any information about the life of these students that once lived and studied here, as most signs were only in Arabic and French.
Jerome found me in one of the rooms, he was rather exited to walk through the maze of the rooms and we decided to wave across the courtyard at each other. I looked down into the courtyard and it was interesting to see the entire building from this angle. The sun was just setting above the rooftop, which gave it a dreamy atmosphere.
The Medrasa was definitely worth our detour to the northern side of the souk and Medina. We went into the Musee de Marrakech afterwards as it was literally next door, but it was a huge disappointment and overpriced in our opinion. The only thing worth seeing was the architecture and the rooms of the old hammam. These were spoilt by pictures of artists that in our opinion did not deserve to be on display in a museum of this calibre, the whole museum felt more like a bazaar for cheap artworks.
We made our way back through the souk to Jemaa El-Fna and walked on to the Koutoubia Mosque, near where we would later be collected by the complimentary hotel shuttle bus. We had some spare time and walked around the famous mosque to see if we could get a peek inside. The Koutoubia Mosque is the largest and most sacred mosque in Marrakech. Its highlight and most famous feature is the beautiful minaret (tower) and with a height of 70 metres it is visible from most of the city. In fact no other buildings are allowed to be higher than the tower. The design of the tower was highly influential for the design of later minarets. Most notably the band of ceramic tiles, the alternative pattern on each side and other decorative motives. The minaret is topped with three golden balls of decreasing size, depicting the holy places of Islam, the largest for Mecca, then Medina and Jerusalem. We also noticed a structure on the roof that looked like a wooden gallows but in fact it shows the direction of Mecca. We could see the doors open on the side of the mosque and people going in for the evening prayer. I tried to get a glimpse of the inside but could only see red carpet and a white ceiling.
Non-Muslims are not allowed to enter the mosque at all time in fact this applies to all mosques in Morocco, with the exception of Hassan II Mosque in Casablanca, which can be entered on a guided tour and the Tin Mal Mosque in the Atlas Mountains. It might be hard for non-Muslims to understand and accept this restriction, especially when anybody can visit churches worldwide or Buddhist shrines and other religious sites. I feel we have to accept and understand this as part of their religion.
We walked through an archway into the public garden of the Koutoubia Mosque, which was still busy with visitors, despite the chilly evening air. We then turned round and made our way to the agreed spot for our shuttle bus, tired and glad to get back to our hotel for a relaxing evening by the warm fireplace and the cats.