Located on a fertile plain, Marrakesh is one of Morocco's four imperial cities. Founded in eleventh-century as the African capital of Almoravid dynasty; it was conquered by the Almohads in 1147, and then to Marinids, only to be taken by the French in 1912.
Marrakesh was founded in 1062 by Yusif Ben Tashfin, the first ruler of the Almoravid dynasty. His son, Ali, built the Ben Yussef Mosque and the city wall. The Almohads (1146-1268) made Marrakesh the capital of their empire and it was during this period that the Koutoubia was built.
The Marinids (1268-1520) neglected Marrakesh but they were succeeded by the Saadians (1520-1668) who endowed the city with the Badi' palace, the Ben-Yussef madrasa and the Saadian mausoleum.
From 1668 onwards, the Alawites, who resided in Marrakesh only occasionally, erected numerous buildings such as the palace of Bahia and Dar Si Saod at the end of the nineteenth-century. Later, the modern town was to develop three kilometres from the Medina, with its wide avenues bordered with palm-trees, orange-trees and jacarandas.
When first created in the 11th century, Marrakesh was a link on the caravan route that joins the south and the north of Morocco by way of the valleys up the Upper Atlas. Routes from the Tafilelt region and the Draa valley also converged on Marrakesh. Later, as the capital of the Almoravid and subsequently the Almohad empires (eleventh and thirteenth centuries), it became the seat of the unique authority ruling the entire Muslim West, including Andalusia.
At that time, Marrakesh was a large metropolis, housing probably up to 100,000 inhabitants.
Between the thirteenth and early sixteenth centuries, Marrakesh experienced a period of decline due to the displacement further east (in Algeria, Tunisia and particularly Egypt) of roads used to transport African gold, and the relocation of Morocco's capital to Fez. During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, under the Saadians, Marrakesh was revived and flourished thanks to the gold trade, and the conquest of Tombouctou by the Saadians.
The Ali bin Yusuf mosque was originally constructed in the beginning of the twelfth century by the Almoravid prince Ali bin Yusuf. The exact dates of construction are unknown, but several texts suggest that the mosque building was constructed between 1120 and 1126, and that the minaret was constructed in two phases, between 1129 and 1132. The mosque was the largest known Almoravid mosque and was extremely impressive in terms of both scale and expense at the time of its construction. After Marrakech fell to the Almohad dynasty in 1147, the mosque was closed and subsequently fell into disrepair. Centuries later, in the years between 1804 and 1820, the Alawi ruler Moulay Sulayman built a new mosque atop the ruins of the twelfth century mosque. Though the Almoravid mosque beneath it has almost completely vanished, the current mosque still retains the name of the patron of the destroyed mosque, Ali bin Yusuf.
While the original mosque of Ali bin Yusuf has all but disappeared, excepting small portions of its walls and minaret, various details have been deduced from excavations and written records concerning its plan and orientation. The mosque was located in the Zaouiat Lakhdar neighborhood of the medina of Marrakech, in a block bounded on the north by Derb Zaouiat Lakhdar and on the west by Rue Assouel. The footprint of the twelfth-century mosque was a rectangle approximately 120 meters long east to west and 80 meters wide north to south. The assumption of historians of this mosque is that the plan of the mosque resembled that of the Great Mosque of Cordoba, which had a major influence on Almoravid architecture. The comparison with that building suggests that the prayer hall was a square space 80 meters long and 80 meters wide, and that the sahn adjoining it to the west was a rectangle 40 meters long and 80 meters wide.
Excavations of the surviving fragments of the minaret by Gaston Deverdun indicate that the minaret did not align with the axis of the mihrab that had been presumed by comparison of the plan with that of Cordoba. The location of the excavated minaret led Deverdun to believe that a door was located in the center of the west wall opening to the courtyard of the mosque. The minaret itself was monumental in scale, rising from a square base 10 meters on a side to a total height of 30 meters. However, it remains unknown if its construction was ever fully completed. A door at the base of the minaret opened directly into the courtyard of the mosque. As with the minaret at Cordoba, two stairways rose in opposite directions within the shaft from this point of entry, and assumedly met at the summit of the minaret.
Across the street from the site of the mosque to the south stands an ablution fountain pavilion that was a part of the complex of the original Ali bin Yusuf mosque. This small building, known as the Qubbat Barudiyin, is the only complete surviving structure built during the Almoravid period in Marrakech. Its delicate stucco dome remains as an example of the intricate decoration of the Almoravid period that derived from Andalusian motifs.
The decoration of the twelfth century Ali bin Yusuf mosque was likely rich, as we know that the total cost of construction of the mosque was extremely high for the period. While little is known of the ornamentation of the building itself, the mosque was the original home of the spectacular minbar of the Kutubiyya mosque in Marrakesh. The minbar was commissioned by Ali bin Yusuf in 1137 and crafted in a workshop in Cordoba, from whence it was shipped to Marrakesh and placed in the mosque of Ali bin Yusuf until the Almohad capture of the city. The need for an impressive minbar in the first Kutubiyya mosque constructed by Almohad ruler Abd-al-Mu'min caused the Almoravid minbar to be relocated there in 1147. The piece is an exquisite example of twelfth century Andalusian decorative traditions, which figured prominently in the ornamentation of Almoravid buildings due to their empire's presence in the Iberian Peninsula.
After centuries of neglect and lack of use, what remained of the original Ali bin Yusuf mosque was replaced by a new construction at the beginning of the eighteenth century during the reign of Alawi ruler Moulay Sulayman. The second mosque, though on the same site as the first mosque, has a completely unrelated plan. The second mosque is square in plan, measuring sixty-four meters to a side. The transverse axis of this structure is rotated three degrees counter-clockwise from the north-south meridian. The prayer hall is located on the eastern edge of the site, with an overall dimension of 21 meters in width from east to west, and the full length of the mosque, 65 meters, from north to south. The prayer hall is composed of three parallel naves running north to south, each seven meters in width. To the west of the prayer hall is a courtyard that is 40 meters in length from north to south and 30 meters in width from east to west. To the north and south of the courtyard are arcades running east to west that are 12 meters in width, and to the west is an arcade running north to south that is 8 meters in width. The points of intersection of these three arcades at the west corners of the courtyard are the locations of the minaret to the north and a qubba of unknown use to the south.
Two corridors extend out from the main square form of the mosque to provide entries from the surrounding streets. These corridors are necessary as the mosque does not occupy the entire block in which it sits, unlike its twelfth century predecessor, and various smaller buildings to the north, west, and east of the mosque have isolated it from a direct connection with any street except the one to the south. Corridors depart from the center of the arcades bordering the courtyard to the west and the north and provide direct access to the mosque from Derb Zaouiat Lakhdar and Rue Assouel. A third entry to the mosque is located in the center of the arcade to the south of the courtyard. There is no public entry to the east as the qibla wall extends along the entire eastern elevation.
Upon entering the mosque from the south, one passes through an arcade into the courtyard directly on axis with the central ablution fountain. This large fountain is a round basin approximately 2 meters in diameter surrounded by a continuous octagonal ring of benches for worshippers that is 6 meters in diameter. The basin itself is made of marble and takes the form of a shallow disc with carved scalloped edges. The fountain and its surrounding benches are framed on the ground plane by a square of green and white tile work that is 6 meters to a side. The scale of the tile pattern in this central square is much smaller than that of the rest of the courtyard, which follows a one-meter by one-meter grid pattern of white and black marble.
Looking up and to the left from the central fountain, one may observe the minaret rising from the northwest corner of the courtyard. The minaret towers above the city, reaching a height of approximately 40 meters from a square base that is 8 meters to a side. The footprint of the minaret at the base is extruded up to approximately five sixths of the height of the minaret, at which point the main shaft terminates in a row of stepped merlons. An open air gallery is located at the level of the merlons, and from that height a second smaller square shaft rises that ends after one story in additional stepped merlons. The smaller shaft is topped by a dome and metal finial. Constructed of stone, the minaret is relatively free of decoration excepting the large, multi-story rectangular outlines of green tile that are inset into each of its elevations. These large rectangles outline shallow rectangular insets into each elevation that contain arched openings of various sizes on each of the three stories within the volume of the primary shaft. The twin arched openings that are found on each level of the south elevation of the minaret are typical of this type of Moroccan minaret. This minaret resembles the Almohad minarets located elsewhere in Marrakech and Morocco, which in turn derived from Andalusian architectural traditions seen in buildings like the Great Mosque of Cordoba. It is interesting to note that both the twelfth and the eighteenth century mosques of Ali bin Yusuf were influenced by Andalusian architecture despite the fact that they were built centuries apart by different political dynasties.
Turning to the right from the central fountain, one walks to the east across the courtyard and into the main prayer hall on axis with the mihrab. Moving through the prayer hall from the courtyard, one crosses the three transverse naves through a series of arcades. Each arcade consists of a row of eleven unadorned horseshoe arches cut out of a one-meter thick wall. The central arch in each arcade is decorated with green and white tile work in fine geometric patterns. Small windows on the otherwise bare north and south walls of the prayer hall are fitted with carved mashrabiyyas that provide both privacy and decoration.
The mihrab is traditional, composed of an archway opening into a small niche in the qibla wall. The horseshoe arch is roughly 2 meters in diameter rising from an impost approximately 2 meters high. The outer face of the arch and its spandrel are decorated with delicate carved geometric motifs. Surrounding the spandrel is a rectangular band of molding with carved inscriptions, surmounted by a second spandrel containing five blind decorative arches filled with further geometric motifs. A second thick molding carved with an ornate scalloped lozenge pattern frames the stacked spandrels and arch, and those carvings are then outlined by a final narrow band of molding that wraps up over the mihrab and then continues along the qibla wall just above the height of the impost of the arch. Below this molding, the length of the qibla wall is decorated with green, brown, and white tilework in a simple grid pattern.
The mihrab, however, is not the most notable decorative element in the prayer hall. The mosque is celebrated instead for the delicate paintings that enliven its ceilings. The roofs of the prayer hall were built in wood using a beam and rafter system, and the wooden elements have all been painted with colorful geometric frescoes. White, blue, red, and gold are the dominant colors in the detailed decorative painting that was applied not only to the spanning elements but also to the cornice and the interior face of the roof cladding. The exteriors of the roof were clad in green ceramic tiles, but some sections were later repaired and replaced with terracotta colored tiles.
Ultimately the long history of this mosque reveals the desires of two rulers, centuries apart, to assert their personal authority in the city of Marrakech through the medium of architecture. Both Ali bin Yusuf and Moulay Sulayman used the construction of a central congregational mosque to display their wealth and influence in the civic realms that they controlled. Ali bin Yusuf's title and Moulay Suleyman's edifice have persisted and combined to form the mosque that stands today.
Bloom, Jonathan M., Ahmed Toufiq, Stefano Carboni, Jack Soultanian, Antoine M. Wilmering, Mark D. Minor, Andrew Zawacki, and El Moustafa Hbibi. 1998. The Minbar from the Kutubiyya Mosque. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 3-6.
Deverdun, Gaston. 2004. Marrakech, des origines à 1912. Casablanca: Editions Frontispice, 98-106, 516-519.
Hillenbrand, Robert. 1999. Islamic Architecture. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 140-141.