Medersa Ben Youssef

through a student room at the Medersa Ben Youssef
through a student room at the Medersa Ben Youssef

Appropriately, as I write this, I can hear one of the five calls to prayer that rise over the other sounds of the city, a descant distinct above all other sounds. Our host where we are staying, himself a Muslim, thinks that the modern imams have it easy – they no longer have to climb the towers and issue the calls to prayer in person from the high cupolas; they are wired now, and the haunting cry goes out via loudspeaker, maximizing the range of all voice; although to listen one wouldn’t doubt the ability of these calls to prayer to penetrate equally well without the loudspeakers.

It has been a week of visiting schools here in Marrakech. First, the Medersa Ben Youssef. In the heart of the city, just north of the intricate maze that composes the souk where a sort of law-of-the-jungle commerce unfolds in the crowded stalls, passages and alleyways, the Medersa Ben Youssef is the oldest college of Koranic study in Northern Africa, and for much of its life it was the largest. Established in the 14th century, it was named after an influential sultan of two hundred years previous. The building was restored in 1982, and is now open to the public. For a person such as myself who has been in boarding schools his entire career it is fascinating to see the quarters that the students occupied, pictured below, both from the inside and the outside. The symmetry of the building is remarkable, the geometry intended to mirror the order and perfection of the universe Allah created. In keeping with the teachings the students were studying, there are no representations of humans in the carvings or architecture. In contrast to the elaborate and detailed carvings and mosaic, the student rooms are spartan – again as befits students whose education is meant to prepare them for the hard life of the desert and the challenges of serving Allah.

The Medersa – madrasah, as they are now called – was closed in 1960 as a place of study. Long before that, however, it had lost its priority in the Islamic world to another college, further north, in Fez. The main reason for the decline was not the quality of the teaching, however, but the quality of the plumbing. The facility in Fez had superior sanitation, could accommodate the students better, and created therefore a better atmosphere for study, among other things.

Such schools – schools of Koranic study – exist throughout the Islamic world, and in some places these are the only schools. The only subject is the study and memorization and discussion of the Koran. In the other two schools I visited in Marrakech, the living, flesh and blood schools, the curriculum was broader. One school was in the heart of the medina, the old walled city, and the other in the new part of the city. More on those shortly.


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