Last Updated: 2021-01-27
When traveling, sometimes you have no choice but to use your imagination to see the history in certain places.
I personally don’t have much of an imagination, but even I can hear the centuries of students fanning through books and walking up and down the hallways of a particular place in Fez.
Today we’re going to talk about none other than the Bou Inania Madrasa in Fez. Let’s get started!
What is a Madrasa?
A madrasa “مدرسة” is the Arabic word for school, but when we say “madrasa” in English we’re usually referring to Islamic religious schools for somewhat older students, something similar to current universities or graduate schools.
They teach a much wider range of subjects than some might imagine. Of course, the Koran is a major focus of study, but they also branch out to a wide number of disciplines connected in one way or another to religion, such as calligraphy, astrology, algebra and law.
They are laid out surrounding a central patio with a motif related to water. They usually have two floors, with arcades and common areas on the ground floor and student rooms on the upper floor.
The Inside of the Bou Inania Madrasa
Going through the main door we see the central patio and the madrasa’s rooms on all four sides around it.
What is most surprising is how different materials are combined, without detracting from the elegance of the whole: the tiles up to two meters high on the wall, the marble on the floor, the white stucco, the wood in the upper areas of both floors and on the doors as well as the green tiles on the roofs.
Although every inch of the madrasa is meticulously decorated, and we can spend hours upon hours appreciating the details in the plaster or the carving of the wood, it has a simple yet majestic appearance.
Unfortunately, you can only visit the central courtyard or, at the most, take a little furtive look at the spaces around it. Although it is true that the way the madrassa is laid out as observed from the courtyard hints at what’s on the inside, I think you will appreciate some additional information and a floorplan.
Layout of the Madrasa (click to enlarge)
You can probably tell that the ground floor is made up of the three main spaces around the central courtyard: the mosque and two prayer rooms. The rest of the ground floor is covered with wooden lattices that protect the privacy of what happens upstairs. The second floor houses the student rooms as well as galleries and shared bathing areas.
There is no trace of any of the usual common spaces in a modern university dorm, such as a dining room or a study room. The life of a student in a madrassa was prestigious but also quite austere: attend classes, pray on the ground floor, study, eat and sleep in a tiny cubicle upstairs.
10 Interesting Facts about the Bou Inania Madrasa
Most madrasas have a small prayer room, but Bou Inania has a full-fledged mosque with a minaret. Normally madrasas were built near an already established mosque and the two institutions cooperated closely with each other for both religious and educational activities. But since there was none in the area, Bou Inania has the rare distinction of housing a sumptuous mosque within its confines.
Because of its unique history, the Bou Inania Madrasa holds the status of a congregational mosque, the only such one in all of Morocco housed in a madrasa. Congregational mosques or Friday mosques are where the most important prayer session of the week takes place on Friday and brings together all the faithful from the many other mosques in the area.
On the way to the mosque believers cross a small bridge. This is one of the points in the city where the Fez river, which mainly flows underground, is visible from the surface. This means that the ablution fountain in the courtyard receives water directly from the river and, unlike many others like it, is still in use.
It’s been renovated twice (once in the 18th century and again in the 20th century), so it’s one of the best-preserved madrasas in Morocco today.
Today, Bou Inania still functions to a limited extent as an educational institution. So, unlike the vast majority of madrasas in Morocco, which are no longer in use and completely open to travelers, visitors are only allowed to visit the courtyard.
There is another madrasa with the same name in the city of Meknes. The origin of the name of both is similar, but not identical. The one in Fez was built by Sultan Abu Inan Faris in 1351, and hence its name. The one in Meknes was built by his father 15 years before, and later restored by the son, and from that moment it was also known as the Bou Inania Madrasa.
Like all the important places in Fez, Bou Inania has its legends. One of them says that Abu Inan, feeling guilty for his father’s overthrow, sought advice from scholars on how he could ask for God’s forgiveness. They advised him to build a madrasa in a part of the city that until then had been a waste dump. By improving and purifying a part of the city, he would do the same with his soul.
Another legend says that the sultan’s desire to build a majestic and beautiful madrasa was such that the budget got out of hand. When the builders showed him the account book, he threw it into the river saying “beauty is never expensive, no matter what the price”.
I hope you enjoyed this article on the Bou Inania Madrasa in Fez and that you check it out the next time you go to Morocco. Much love to all! See you next time!
Coordinates: 34°06′ N -4°98′ W (see location)
Size: Approximately 16,000 sq. ft. (1500 m²), on two floors
Construction date: 1351-1357
Hours: Saturday to Thursday from 9:00am to 6:00pm (closed during prayers)
Entrance fee: 20 dirhams
If you want to know more about the city, check out our Fez Travel Guide.