08 November 2012

Medersa Ben Youssef


Who'd have thought a school could look like this?! The 16th-century Medersa Ben Youssef  (Koranic school) really is a spectacle to behold. As we enter through the door and walk along the narrow corridor taking us into the central courtyard, we wonder what all the fuss is about - but then we hit the courtyard! To say it is stunning does not describe the scene before us. At the centre of this enormous courtyard lies a rectangular marble pool lined with zellij tiles, reflecting the amazing intricately-carved cedar wood and plaster of the walls which surround it. Archways are to be seen all around the courtyard, each appearing more decorative than the last. The colourful wall tiles complete the picture.

The grand central courtyard
Detail of zellij tiling and stucco

Stunning facades and columns

Structural diversity

As required by Islamic law, the carvings on the windows and doors bear no reference to animals or humans, but rather consist of inscriptions and repeated geometric patterns. Motifs of palms and pine cones are also used to adorn the walls, apparently to serve the purpose of providing a three dimensional surface to the walls.

Through the arched window

As we look up we can see many ornate arched windows which look out onto the courtyard. One might be fooled into thinking these were the students' rooms and thinking how wonderful it would have been to study here..But no. These serve merely to throw light along the narrow corridors...the students' rooms, of which there are more than 100, are clustered in sixes and sevens facing inwards onto inner lightwells. It's hard to fathom how over 800 students at any one time were housed and educated here. 

Internal corridor

We climb the internal stairs and find ourselves looking across the courtyard through some of these ornately-carved arched windows situated along the corridors.

The upper level

Detail of an archway

The students' rooms themselves are very small and dark, appearing very medieval, almost like the cells of monks. It must have been a frightening place for those children who were away from home for the first time.

Two rooms are set up to show how the students' rooms would have looked in the 16th century - except of course the artifacts are now set up in well-lit rooms so visitors can see clearly and gain an insight into how life must have been. Students from the city and also those from the surrounding villages would have the following items in their room: a small writing desk with ink well, a quill to write with, a copy of the Koran and other manuscripts, a candle or oil lamp,  a tea tray with glasses, a tagine to cook food in, a pot of water for ablutions, a sheepskin prayer mat, a small cushion and a sleeping mat. For the city student the items would have been made of ceramics and bronze; the village student would have items made of pottery and clay. The distinction was made between rich and poor at every turn.

A room for a village student

A room for a city student

A window grille

Artwork on a pillar

 It is hard to believe that this school was still in use as recently as 1962 despite its lack of modern facilities. In 1998 the building was used in the making of the film Hideous Kinky starring Kate Winslet where it served as an Algerian Suffic retreat centre - a film well-worth seeing for those interested in life in Morocco.