Last Updated: 2021-04-28
The Koutoubia Mosque (also spelled Kutubiyya) in Marrakech is, without a doubt, the most iconic mosque in this city and one of the most famous in all of Morocco.
The name literally means “of the books” because of the numerous book stalls that surrounded the mosque in its early years. Its design has served as a model and inspiration for many other monuments.
A Bit of History
Although it might seem that the mosque has always been there, acting as the city’s faithful sentinel, the reality is that this plot of land has several layers of history.
In 1147, Almohad emir Abd Al-Mumin ordered the first mosque to be built here on the site of a palace demolished by Ibn Tumart, leader of the Masmuda Berber tribe who destroyed many Almoravids temples in the course of his revolt.
That, however, is not the mosque that we see today. In 1154, although the construction was nearly complete, the builders had to start all over. According to tradition, an approximately 5 degree inaccuracy was noticed in its orientation to Mecca (a term that the Muslims call “qibla”). The new mosque was practically identical to the previous one, merely adjusting the location and alignment.
Actually, this issue could be easily solved if every worshipper turned to pray in the appropriate direction. So, it is too simplistic to say that this single issue justified rebuilding the mosque. Other possible reasons are that the first mosque had some construction defects or that it was not large enough to accommodate all the worshippers. One of the façades of the second mosque is even aligned with the old one and for approximately 30 years both coexisted and housed the faithful.
The second mosque was finished around 1190, although in 1158 it already fit the minimal requirements for prayer. By the time the second mosque was completed only first mosque’s foundation and base of the walls were visible, which we can still see today.
The True Orientation of the Mosque
Curiously, not only is the new mosque not properly oriented towards Mecca, but it is more inaccurate than the previous one; the first one had a deviation of five degrees, and instead of correcting it by 5 degrees in the right direction, they did it in the wrong one. So, the current building is off by 10 degrees.
Actually, the deviation is much larger, since the criteria for determining the qibla is more stringent today. When Koutoubia was built it was quite simple, roughly 25 degrees south and 65 degrees east, the orientation when the prophet prayed in the city of Medina towards Mecca.
An accurate prayer direction in Islam is not supposed to be based on fixed cardinal directions; it varies on the location of the worshiper and always points towards the city of Mecca, specifically the Kaaba, a prism-shaped construction located in the largest mosque in the city that is the most sacred place for Muslims.
Today a complex trigonometric formula is used that considers the position of both the worshipper and the Kaaba. So, in places intended for prayers, such as a hotel room, the task is usually made easier for the faithful by pointing it out with a qibla pointer. Nowadays, worshippers can also use mobile phone applications that use geolocation.
The actual deviation of the Koutoubia Mosque, if we rely on current criteria, is approximately 70 degrees. The following image shows a diagram with the orientation of the first (1) and second mosque (2), the supposed orientation of Mecca on the date of the construction of the mosque (3) and the current direction of the qibla (4).
The Mosque in Detail
Mosques are places for prayer and reflection, and all tend to have a similar layout and characteristic elements. The most important is the main wall or qibla wall, oriented towards Mecca from which the imam directs the prayer from a raised platform called the minbar. During prayer, worshippers arrange themselves in corridors that face the qibla wall, called musallā; outside the prayer area, there is a patio with a fountain where there used to be a ritual purification area to wash the hands, feet and head (called ablutions) as well as a minaret where the call to prayer goes out from.
In the specific case of Koutoubia, its shape is rectangular (except for the wall opposite the qibla, parallel to the old mosque), with dimensions of 200 feet by 300 feet (60 m by 90 m) and made up of 17 different naves.
Koutoubia Mosque Layout (click to enlarge)
Inside is a forest of columns and white arches with wooden ceilings, which make up the prayer corridors. The highlight is the central corridor which is significantly wider with more elaborate and higher domed ceilings, and with a design similar to the gallery that runs parallel to the qibla.
The minbar, approximately 13 feet high (4 m) and 11 feet wide (3.5 m) and triangular in shape with the staircase to the upper platform forming its diagonal side, is made of carved wood with numerous ivory and silver accents. However, it was removed in order to be restored and was replaced with the new, less ornate minbar that we see today. The original is currently on display in the Badi Palace.
All this space is interrupted only by a 160 feet by 65 feet (50 x 20 m) courtyard for ablutions opposite the qibla and by the minaret next to it which is made up of six rooms, each on its own floor of the tower, and a ramp that winds around them. This ramp leads to the upper area with its four open-facing sides where the adhan or calls to prayer go out.
On the outside, the mosque is pink sandstone with four entrances for the faithful on its east side and two other private entrances on its south side for the imam and royalty.
The Minaret, the Highest Point in Marrakech
The minaret is the highest place in the city. In fact, it is forbidden by law to build any building that exceeds 240 feet (77 m), the precise height of the minaret. The artistic and architectural importance of this part of the building cannot be underestimated, and it has served as a model for many other well-known Muslim buildings such as the Hasan Tower in Rabat and the Giralda in Seville.
Although it has lost some of its original decoration, the minaret is still a spectacular work of architecture, with its several rows of green tiles and the various well-preserved mosaics and engravings near the top. It is also crowned with a balustrade with three bronze balls stacked one on top of the other, largest (roughly 6 feet [2m] in diameter) to smallest. Legend says that this ornament was originally made of gold.
Non-Muslims Cannot Enter the Mosque
As with all active religious buildings in Morocco, except for the Hassan II Mosque in Casablanca, non-Muslims are not allowed to enter.
This is not because the Koran forbids it. According to Islamic law, non-Muslims are allowed to visit mosques as long as its not during prayer time and if they respect proper decorum. How the law is enforced varies greatly depending on the country and the branch of Islam; in Egypt and Turkey, for example, anyone can enter a mosque, but in Saudi Arabia it is strictly prohibited.
In the case of Morocco, a decree was published when it was a French protectorate that forbid Europeans from entering mosques to promote an atmosphere of respect. Although Morocco is no longer a French colony, it is still in force.
The silhouette of Koutoubia’s minaret is recognizable from any point in Marrakech, like a beacon in the sky that we are drawn to, but cannot get too close to.
Coordinates: 31°26′N -7°99′W (see location)
Size: 1.25 acres (5,000 m2) approx. If we included the foundations of the first mosque, the area would be double.
Construction date: The first version of the mosque began construction in 1147 and was completed in 1157. The second started in 1154 and finished in 1190. Despite this, they were already in use in 1154 and 1158, respectively.
Hours: Non-Muslim cannot enter. It opens and closes five times a day for Muslims, a little before and after each prayer, with the schedule varying every day depending on when the sun rises and sets.
If you want to know more about the city, check out our Marrakesh guide.