The 'Ali bin Yusuf Madrasa bears the name of Wattasid sovereign 'Ali bin Yusuf (reg. 1448-1458/851-861 AH), who served as ruler for the Marinids while they held power in Morocco during the mid-fifteenth century. However, the madrasa that exists today was not built by bin Yusuf himself, or even during his lifetime; instead, the building was constructed by the Sa'di Sultan Sidi Abdallah al-Ghalib (reg. 1557-1574/964-981 AH) more than one hundred years after bin Yusuf's death. The new madrasa was built on the same site as an earlier Marinid madrasa presumably commissioned by 'Ali bin Yusuf, and thus the Sa'di madrasa takes its name from the institution that it was built to replace. The current 'Ali bin Yusuf madrasa is one of very few notable Moroccan madrasas built after the fall of the Marinids in 1465/869 AH, as that dynasty constructed almost all of the surviving architecturally significant madrasas in the region.
The footprint of the current 'Ali bin Yusuf madrasa is almost a perfect square, 42 meters long and wide in plan. The longitudinal axis of the plan is rotated thirty-four degrees counter-clockwise from the north-south meridian in order to accommodate qibla orientation; while this rotation is similar to that of other Sa’dian religious structures in Marrakech, the true direction to Mecca would require a counter-clockwise rotation of eighty-nine degrees. The building has only one entrance, a small arched opening at the northern end of the west elevation.
Upon entering the madrasa via its diminutive portal at the northwest corner of the building, one walks down a narrow, fully enclosed corridor that is parallel to the north wall of the building, moving eastward. The corridor terminates in a small covered vestibule at the center of the north elevation, on axis with the center of the courtyard. After arriving in this vestibule from the entry corridor, the path turns to the right where the courtyard and the mihrab in the prayer hall on the opposite side of the court are both suddenly visible. The process of entry into the complex and articulation of the threshold between exterior and interior are carefully considered to create this moment of revelation in which the splendor of the courtyard is unexpectedly revealed and carefully framed.
The courtyard is 15 meters wide and 20 meters long, and edged by covered open air galleries on its east and west sides. These galleries are defined by solid walls along their outer edges that fully enclose the courtyard and separate it from the inner corridor and students cells that surround it. At the center of the courtyard is a large shallow pool, approximately 3 meters wide and 7 meters long, in place of the typical ablutions fountain. The courtyard is only accessible via the main entry vestibule at the north, or through a large arched portal that opens to the prayer hall at the south. The prayer hall, a rectangular space 15 meters wide and 10 meters long, is only accessible through the courtyard.
The current madrasa differs in plan from the original structure in terms of the layout of the student cells that surround the central courtyard. The first 'Ali bin Yusuf madrasa, completely destroyed when the current madrasa was constructed, was planned according to the Marinid madrasa typology. Like other Marinid madrasas, the original 'Ali bin Yusuf madrasa consisted of a ring of student cells opening directly onto a corridor that bounded the perimeter of a rectangular central courtyard. In the Sa'di madrasa, instead of opening onto a corridor edging the courtyard, each cell is accessed through one of seven small secondary courtyards, or duwiras, that open onto the perimeter corridor. Six or seven student cells adjoin each duwira on both the ground level and the first floor, allowing for approximately one hundred student rooms in total and making this madrasa one of the largest in Morocco. The inclusion of the duwiras as a structuring device in the plan allows for a greater number of cells to be accessed via the perimeter corridor by extending the penetration of public circulation spaces in the depth of the plan. Also significant in this unique arrangement is the creation of secondary common spaces in the duwiras that admit light and air to the small private cells.
The courtyard of the madrasa features ornament in multiple materials, including painted ceramic tile work, wooden mashrabiyas and lintels, and elaborate carved plaster cornices. The entry to the courtyard from the outer corridor is marked by a large wooden entry gate composed of mashrabiyya screens as a surround and cornice for carved wooden doors. The lower 2 meters of the walls that surround the courtyard are covered by small multi-colored ceramic tiles, and the walls above the tile work are faced with delicate plaster carving. Both the tiles and the plasterwork depict abstracted vegetal patterns, and carved inscriptions in plaster are used as borders along the uppermost cornices and along the upper edge of the tile work. The lower portions of the walls inside the prayer hall are plain white plaster, in contrast to the detailed carved plaster of the upper portions of the wall. Near the top of each wall are several small arched windows, inset with carved plaster screens that filter incoming light and create delicate patterns of light and shadow on the textured surfaces of the interior walls.
The entry to the mihrab is surrounded entirely by carved plasterwork, radiating out in geometric vegetal motifs from the horseshoe shaped opening into the octagonal niche. The niche of the mihrab that projects past the qibla wall is topped by a muqarnas dome of carved plaster.
The roof of the building is completely of green ceramic tile, which is the traditional roofing material for Moroccan madrasas. The roof of the prayer hall rises to form a pyramid over the center of the oratory, which is a roof section also commonly employed in this building type.
The decoration of the student cells is spare, but the secondary courtyards feature ceramic tile work and carved plasterwork of similar quality and intricacy as that of the main courtyard. The decoration of the 'Ali bin Yusuf madrasa, while opulent and well-detailed, is in many ways typical of fifteenth-century Moroccan madrasas and thus not as acclaimed as its unorthodox plan. However, the madrasa has been well-maintained and remains in use to this day; as one of the most famous historical structures in Marrakech, it attracts thousands of architectural and religious tourists every year.
Bonine, Michael E. "Sacred Direction and City Structure." Muqarnas VII: 1990. 52.
Bosworth, Clifford Edmund. The New Islamic Dynasties. New York: Columbia University Press, 1996. 48-52.
Deverdun, Gaston. Marrakech, des origines à 1912. Casablanca: Editions Frontispiece, 2004. 373-377.