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 Ya'qub al-Mansur mosque was built by Almohad ruler Ya'qub al-Mansur (reg. 1184-1199) between 1185 and 1190. The mosque was built concurrently with the rest of the Almohad Qasbah, within which it was a central building. In 1569 an explosion seriously damaged the structure, and Sa'dian sultan 'Abd Muhammad al-Ghalib (reg. 1557-1574) rebuilt the destroyed portions of the mosque. Two centuries later, the mosque underwent extensive restoration under the direction of Alawid ruler Sidi Muhammad III bin Abdallah (reg. 1757-1790).
The mosque is almost a perfect square in plan, with an outer dimension of 76 meters along its east-west axis and 71 meters along its north-south axis. The longitudinal axis of the mosque is rotated twenty-one degrees counter-clockwise from the north-south meridian to account for qibla orientation. Although the correct direction to Mecca would have required a counter-clockwise rotation of eighty-nine degrees, this orientation is similar to that of other Almohad mosques in the city. The mosque originally had seven primary entrances, one in the center of the north elevation and three on each of the east and west elevations. Today there are only four entrances as the three portals on the east elevation no longer exist.
The plan of the Ya'qub al-Mansur mosque departs in two primary ways from Maghribi mosque conventions. The most significant way in which the mosque is unique is in the central position and large proportion of the sahn relative to the covered spaces of the mosque. The courtyard is 42 meters long and 62 meters wide overall, while the prayer hall is only 22 meters long and 62 meters wide. In most Moroccan mosques, the sahn is peripherally located and much smaller than the enclosed prayer hall, and thus cannot function as the core of the mosque as it does in the Ya'qub al-Mansur. Also unusual is the inclusion of four ablution basins in the courtyard, as opposed to the convention of creating one large central basin.
A second highly unorthodox feature of the plan is its cruciform figure. Most Maghribi mosques feature a T-shaped plan instead of the cross that is evident in the Ya'qub al-Mansur mosque. The cross is articulated along the north-south axis by the typical opposing entry portal and mihrab, and along the east-west axis by two covered galleries, each 8 meters wide, that project 12 meters into the sahn from the centers of the east and west perimeter arcades. These galleries mark the east and west entrances to the mosque. The extensions of the galleries into the courtyard serve to divide the open air space into one central courtyard that is 42 meters long and 38 meters wide, and four smaller secondary courtyards that are 17 meters long and 12 meters wide. The division of the courtyard into primary and secondary spaces is not seen in other Maghribi mosques, but it has been speculated that this subdivision of space may be a reflection of the hierarchical nature of Almohad religious and political views.
The Almohad decoration of the mosque, which was primarily preserved in later renovations, was heavily influenced by Andalusian decorative traditions. At the time of the mosque's construction, the Almohad empire extended into Spain and the artistic and architectural motifs of that region heavily influenced Moroccan design. For instance, the capitals of the columns in the Ya'qub al-Mansur mosque clearly derive from the Umayyad capitals seen in the Great Mosque of Cordoba (9th-10th centuries). The arched entry and the tympanum of the mihrab niche are also embellished with carvings of abstracted vegetal motifs that are typical of the Cordovan and Almohad workshops of the late twelfth century. The interior of the mihrab niche features a muqarnas dome with stalactite projections that is thought to have been added during the Sa'dian renovations of the mosque in 1569.
The doors that secure the northern entrance of the mosque first hung in the Great Church of Seville, but they were imported to Morocco by Ya'qub al-Mansur after his major victory over the Christians in Spain in 1195. These large bronze doors still bear traces of earlier Latin inscriptions in Gothic characters that were not completely erased after the doors changed hands.
The mosque originally featured an impressive operable maqsura similar to that of the nearby Kutubiyya mosque, which was constructed by Ya'qub al-Mansur's grandfather, the first Almohad ruler 'Abd al-Mu'min (reg. 1130-1163). Though little is known about the particular maqsura at the Ya'qub al-Mansur mosque, it is likely that it was a large wooden construction that was raised mechanically from a hidden groove in the floor to partition an area of the prayer hall near the mihrab for the exclusive use of the ruler and his court. However, it is known that the maqsura never functioned after the end of the sixteenth century and was not reconstructed in the later Alawi renovations. The original minbar, a large carved wooden structure with inlaid ivory detailing, was also lost over the centuries.
Although the mosque was rebuilt twice over the course of six centuries after its initial construction, the mosque as it exists today is highly faithful to the original Almohad plan and décor. The reconstructions undertaken during later periods of Sa'di and Alawi rule were primarily intended to preserve what was consistently regarded as an architecturally unique and valuable religious structure. Today the Ya'qub al-Mansur mosque, with its divergence from the architectural conventions of the region, is one of the most famous Almohad mosques in Morocco.
Bonine, Michael E. 1990. "Sacred Direction and City Structure." Muqarnas VII: 52.
Bosworth, Clifford Edmund. 1996. The New Islamic Dynasties. New York: Columbia University Press, 39-53.
Deverdun, Gaston. 2004. Marrakech, des origines à 1912. Casablanca: Editions Frontispiece, 232-241, 384-385, 487.