The Ben Youssef Medersa was a koranic school attached to the Ben Youssef Mosque, where students learned the Koran by rote, and is the most beautifully decorated building in Marrakesh, with lashings of classic Moroccan decor – zellij tiling, stucco plasterwork, carved cedarwood – all worked to the very highest standards.
Like most of its counterparts up in Fez, the Ben Youssef was a Merenid foundation, established by the “Black Sultan” Abou el Hassan (1331–49), but rebuilt in the 1560s, under the Saadians. As with the slightly later Saadian Tombs, no surface is left undecorated, and the overall quality of its craftsmanship, whether in carved wood, stuccowork or zellij tilework, is startling.
The central courtyard, its carved cedarwood lintels weathered almost flat on the most exposed side, is unusually large. Along two sides run wide, sturdy, columned arcades, which were probably used to supplement the space for teaching in the neighbouring mosque. Above them are some of the windows of the dormitory quarters, which are reached by stairs from the entry vestibule, and from which you can get an interesting perspective – and attempt to fathom how over eight hundred students were once housed in the building. One room is furnished as it would have been when in use.
At its far end, the court opens onto a prayer hall, where the decoration, mellowed on the outside with the city’s familiar pink tone, is at its best preserved and most elaborate, with a predominance of pine cone and palm motifs.