Medieval Schools, Morocco's
the "Holy City of Morocco" Fez is, above all,
noted for its Qarawiyin mosque - the symbol of the
country's intellectual life and its most
prestigious historic site. For more than eleven
hundred years it has been the haven for Islamic
scholars and religious officials. Enhancing this
aura of learning are medersas (Islamic schools)
which dot the city and hug the Qarawiyin in a
loving embrace. Inspired by the schools in Baghdad,
they were, in the main, built by the Marinid
sultans, during the 14th century. As Islamic
colleges with lodgings for students who came to
study, besides religion, the Arabic language,
astronomy, mathematics and medicine, they were
unequaled, in their time, as places of
of these schools were built in the same fashion.
Each medersa had two levels and a central
courtyard, incorporating a fountain, used in ritual
ablutions. A colonnade or gallery surrounded the
courtyard which is edged by a large room, serving
both as a lecture hall and a place for prayer. The
student rooms or cells were mostly located on the
second level but, in a few of the schools, there
were a number on the first level.
medersas were all exquisite works of art, decorated
with carved wood, geometric designs and floral
motifs and lace-like plaster-work. Each one is a
creation of perfect handiwork by master
Yet, in spite of
the ostentatious splendor of the buildings, the
students, living two in each cell-like room, led a
frugal life. In these usually damp and dark rooms,
they prepared their meals, slept and studied. Their
lodgings, bread and drinking water were supplied
free, but they had to buy their own books and most
of their food. Hence, many were compelled to work
part-time as lecturers in mosques or as servants in
the homes of the affluent.
The mother of all
of Fez's medersas is Bou Inania, built in the mid
14th century by Sultan Abu Inan, the first ruler of
the Marinid Dynasty. Incorporating direct
importation of 14th century Andalusian building
techniques, the school is different than the other
medersas in that it had an imposing minaret and
served both as a mosque and a school.
doorways, columns, courtyard and hall are all
extravagantly decorated with dark cedar,
exquisitely carved; floral and geometrical
patterns; delicate lace-like stucco, toughened with
egg white; marble floors; and ceramic-tiled lower
walls covered in Arabic script with academic
messages - one reading, This is a place of
learning. The whole inside is a
stunning combination of decorative artwork.
However, like the other medersas, its student cells
are barren and forlorn.
It is said that
Sultan Abu Inan built the school to rival the
city's grand Qarawiyin mosque and its cost almost
broke the treasury. Because of the great expense, a
story is told that the Sultan threw away the
account books into the river saying, "A thing of
beauty is beyond reckoning."
Bou Inania, but connected to this school, is a
medieval water clock, consisting of 13 windows and
platforms - seven of which still retain their brass
bowls. High over them on a carved lintel of cedar
is a decaying row of 13 windows. Forgotten for
centuries, the clock is being renovated and
hopefully, in the future, experts will be able to
have it working again.
The grandest, most
elaborate and beautiful of all the Marinid
monuments, Bou Inania comes close to perfection in
every aspect of its construction. It is the one
historic site not to be missed by travelers, in
fact, it is the only structure still in religious
use which non-Muslims can enter. Almost every
first-time tourist in Fez takes a photo of Bou
Inania's green-tiled minaret through the Boujeloud
Gate - the most utilized point of entry into the
old walled medieval town into which no auto is
allowed to enter.
The Medersa El
Attarine, next door to the Qarawiyin mosque was
built in the 14th century by the Marinid Sultan Abu
Said. He built it on the edge of the spice souk -
hence, its name, Attarine (from the Arabic air
(spices). In fame, it comes second to Bou Inania.
Some claim it is more beautiful and delicate, and
more perfect than that medersa.
It is an
incredible structure, with a profusion of fine
pattering in blue and white tile, wood and stucco.
Verses from the Koran are incised in continuous
friezes and are breath-taking in
Even though some renovation has been made,
basically the school is in an excellent state of
preservation. Without question, its graceful
proportions, elegant geometrical carved-cedar
ornamentation and distinctive brass doors make it a
living medieval work of art.
Medersa Shrij is
the third finest of the Fez medersas. Erected in
the 14th century, it was named after its beautiful
ablution pool (from the Arabic saharaj - pool).
Noted for its rich carvings and its aura of
calmness and tranquility, it is worth a visit.
However, if one has visited Bou Inania and El
Attarine, this school does not have anything really
new to offer.
Seffarine, constructed in the 13th century is the
oldest medersa built in Fez. Unlike the other
schools, it is built like a traditional Fasi (Fez)
home and gets its name from the Seffarine square
(from the Arabic afar - brass) where craftsmen
hammer metal into huge urns and pots. The medersa
still houses some students and is only worth a
visit if one has time to spare.
Edging the medersa
on the square, stands a marble fountain, decorated
with a carved fleurs-de-lis and one side of the
Qarawiyin mosque's library - one of the most
important libraries in the Arab world.
The newest of
these medieval schools is Medersa El Cherratin,
built in the 17th century by the Alaouite Sultan,
Moulay el-Rachid, founder of the present Moroccan
dynasty. Noted for its double bronze-faced doors
and fine door knockers, it is much less ornate than
the medersas built by the Marinids. However, as a
school it is much more functional. Designed to hold
more than 200 students, it contrasts vividly with
the intricate craftsmanship of the medersas erected
during the earlier Marinid era.
Rarely visited by
travelers are the few remaining less important
schools like Medersa Misbahiya, now under
renovation. Built in the 14th century by Sultan Abu
Hassan, it is noted for the lavish use of marble in
seeking historical architectural gems, these
schools have few equals as relics from the medieval
era. Yesterday, they drew students from the whole
Islamic lands; today they draw tourists from the
four corners of the world.