You who enter my door, may your highest hopes be exceeded reads an inscription over the entrance to the Ben Youssef Madrasa in Marrakech, and after almost six centuries, the blessing still works its charms on visitors.
Founded in the 14th century during the Merenid era, this Islamic college was once the largest in North Africa, and remains among the most magnificent.
On my last trip to Marrakech I was a bit sceptic about the Ali Ben Youssef Madrasa, but it’s definitely worth it. The courtyard is a mind-boggling profusion of Hispano-Moresque ornament: five-colour mosaic walls; stucco ceilings; Atlas cedar windows with weather-worn carved vines; and a mihrab (semicircular niche) of precious, milky-white Carrara marble.
The madrasa is affiliated to the neighbouring Ali ben Youssef Mosque, and nearly 900 students distributed in 132 tiny dormitory cells studied the Qur’an and legal texts here. It was interesting to step in a cell to see how the students used to live. Some of them are so tiny that you have to crouch low to enter, some of which afford glimpses into the main courtyard.
Despite upgrades with its 19th-century renovation, the Ben Youssef Madrasa slowly lost students to its college rival in Fez, but the madrasa still exudes splendor, studious calm. What a great teaching and learning environment this must has been!
Come in the morning, when all is hushed and tranquil and the early sun highlights the exquisitely disciplined beauty of the place.