The Madrasa of Abu Al-Hasan in Salé, a Hidden Architectural Gem

The building’s central courtyard

photography by: Omri Westmark

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It is often the case where Salé is regarded as a mere suburb of Morocco’s capital. Nevertheless, across most of its history, the city was famous by its own right, home to a thriving community of both pirates and Islamic scholars. There’s probably no better testament to its former greatness than the Marinid Madrasa, officially named the Madrasa of Abu Al-Hasan. Abounds with zillions of intricate ornaments, the marvelous school building is barely frequented by tourists, making it a true hidden gem.

For mere onlookers, the Madrasa of Abu Al-Hasan might seem uninspiring at first as the building’s nondescript façade doesn’t imply much about its interior. Better-known as the Marinid Madrasa, the former school is well-ensconced between the town’s narrow alleys, right next to the Great Mosque of Salé, the third largest mosque in the Morocco.

 

In stark contrast to its low-key location and modest frontage, the Madrasa boasts a series of chambers, whose walls are decorated with the utmost attention to details. This sheer intricacy simply reflects the building’s historic significance as one of Medieval Morocco’s most important academic centers.

 

Built in the mid-14th century, the madrasa was once an intellectual powerhouse where almost 100 professors taught philosophy, industrial crafts, medicine, literature, the Arabic language and mysticism. During its heyday, students from all over the country and beyond strove to be amongst its scholars. In fact, the madrasa gave rise to many notable figures, one of whom was Sidi Ben Achir, a local saint who is still venerated for his alleged healing powers.

 

While students no longer frequent its premises, the centuries-old madrasa still obtains a great deal of beauty. Its measly 180 square meters accommodate several halls and student rooms which span across 3 floors, interconnected by a smattering of claustrophobia-inducing staircases.

 

Each and every square inch of the building’s recently-restored interior part is worth exploring, however, the real crown jewel is the main courtyard. Paved with dazzling Zellij tiles, the 3-story rectangular chamber is centered around a pint-sized fountain and punctured by a set of columns. The pillars, which carry meticulously carved walls, are covered with colorful tiles alongside poems that praise the school’s builders.

 

The courtyard’s walls are evenly divided between zellij tilework and an ivory belt of stucco, engraved with traditional Islamic patterns. The whitish stucco is contrasted by the madrasa’s ornate wooden dome, whose skylight floods the main hall with sunlight. Spread across the two upper levels are forty student cells, where dedicated disciples from distant corners of the country formerly spent most of their after-school time.

 

It might come as a surprise, but relative to the visual wealth one can find here, not many tourists actually come by. This lack of visitors in turn is translated to a place free of any nuisances and distractions, where complete strangers won’t take any space at your photos.