Marrakech Top Religious Sites, Marrakech

Marrakech Top Religious Sites (Self Guided), Marrakech

Islam is the official religion in Morocco, which is why it is only natural that mosques are the dominant religious sites in the country, and Marrakech is no exception. Outside these places of worship, the city's religious scene is represented by unique historical monuments (koubbas), cemeteries, and mausoleums – all quite interesting to explore.

Our journey starts with the Ben Youssef Madrasa, an ancient Islamic school and a remarkable example of Moorish architecture. Visitors are captivated by its intricate stucco work, ornate tile patterns, and tranquil courtyard, providing a glimpse into Islamic education and aesthetics.

The nearby Almoravid Koubba showcases early Islamic architectural elegance. The 12th-century structure features a unique domed chamber with an ingeniously designed drainage system, offering insights into the city's historical water management.

The Mausoleum of Sidi Abd El Aziz is a revered site, honoring a prominent Sufi saint. It welcomes devotees and is open only to Muslims, but non-Muslims can still admire it from the outside.

The towering Koutoubia Mosque and its iconic minaret dominate Marrakech's skyline. While non-Muslims are not allowed in, its stunning architecture and beautifully landscaped gardens are a must-see.

The Kasbah Mosque, nestled in the historic Kasbah district, represents a significant spiritual center for locals. Its traditional Moroccan design and cultural significance make it a meaningful stop for visitors interested in the city's religious life.

Lastly, the Saadian Tombs, discovered in 1917, are a poignant reminder of Marrakech's yesteryear. The tombs house the remains of Saadian dynasty members and feature exquisite tilework, making them a unique blend of art and history.

To truly appreciate Marrakech's heritage, exploring these locations is highly recommended, as they can offer a glimpse into Morocco's religious tapestry. So, prepare yourself for a bit of Islam history lesson and robust architecture intake on this self-guided tour.
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Marrakech Top Religious Sites Map

Guide Name: Marrakech Top Religious Sites
Guide Location: Morocco » Marrakech (See other walking tours in Marrakech)
Guide Type: Self-guided Walking Tour (Sightseeing)
# of Attractions: 6
Tour Duration: 1 Hour(s)
Travel Distance: 2.7 Km or 1.7 Miles
Author: ann
Sight(s) Featured in This Guide:
  • Ben Youssef Madrasa
  • Almoravid Koubba
  • Mausoleum of Sidi Abd El Aziz
  • Koutoubia Mosque and Minaret
  • Kasbah Mosque
  • Saadian Tombs
1
Ben Youssef Madrasa

1) Ben Youssef Madrasa (must see)

You'll find the Ali Ben Youssef Madrasa in the Medina district of Marrakech and you shouldn't miss a trip to visit this important building, renovated and opened to the public in 1982. Founded in the 14th century and rebuilt in the 16th, during the Saadian Dynasty, the Madrasa was part of the complex of the nearby Almoravid mosque which was founded by Ali Ben Youssef during his reign between 1106-42, to which it was once attached.

Madrasa means "center of learning" and can be ascribed to a school, a college or a university; in this case, the building served as an Islamic college - one of the largest in North Africa, housing up to 900 students in very cramped conditions, as there were only 130 tiny bedrooms. These basic 'cubicles' barely had room to lay a sleeping mat or use an area for studying and for cooking – so take plenty of photos to show to kids the next time they moan about not having enough space!

Historical and academical significance aside, the madrasa draws in visitors who come to marvel at the large central courtyard beautifully decorated in carved cedar and marble with lovely stuccowork, drawing comparisons to the Alhambra in Granada, Spain. The tiles are laid out in geometrical patterns and bear inscriptions – mostly phrases from the Quran – as, of course, no human or animal representations are allowed. There is also a big pool in the middle that served for ablutions before entering the prayer room that backs onto the courtyard.

Tip:
Go early or late; avoid midday as it's too crowded to enjoy.
2
Almoravid Koubba

2) Almoravid Koubba

Since there aren't many buildings that survived the centuries in good condition, visiting the Koubba will be a real treat for amateur archaeologists. The sole surviving Almoravid building intact in Morocco, it was built in the 12th century and had been renovated/rebuilt in the 16th, before being buried under an outbuilding attached to the Ben Youssef Mosque.

Like so many cities, today's Marrakech is much higher than it once was, due to the custom of importing earth to cover the rubble of destroyed or pulled-down structures. The Koubba remained hidden until excavation work around the mosque began in 1948, and you can now reach it down a flight of steps.

Embodying all the decorative motifs which linger in any Arabian Nights fantasy, the small building has a ribbed dome and windows cut into ornate shapes – a variation on the classic North African (and Andalusian) style. Inside, it has motifs of acanthus leaves, palms, and pine cones, and there are subterranean chambers within the ruins running alongside.

There is quite a lot of calligraphy representing passages from the Quran; the foundation inscription, in particular, is the most ancient example of cursive Maghrebi script in North Africa. The Koubba was used for washing before prayer, and the inscription reads as "I was created for science and prayer, by the prince of the believers, descendant of the prophet, Abdallah, most glorious of all Caliphs. Pray for him when you enter the door, so that you may fulfill your highest hopes."
3
Mausoleum of Sidi Abd El Aziz

3) Mausoleum of Sidi Abd El Aziz

With its wooden, carved eaves and horseshoe-shaped entrance, this Mausoleum, built in 1508 on the orders of the Alaouite Sultan and restored in 2019, is not open to non-Muslims, but don’t let that put you off going to admire it from the exterior, especially since it is on an interesting souk on the way to the mosque/medersa of Ben Youssef.

Sidi Abd el Aziz was a silk merchant in Fès who apparently underwent some kind of religious conversion and gave up his business to become a fervent follower and key disciple of Sidi ben Slimane, the founder of Moroccan Sufism. Thus, he moved to Marrakech were he preached Sufism ethics to craftsmen and corporations in the Ben Youssef Mosque.

Sufism's core dimensions are universal brotherhood, human values and spirituality. It believes in organic spread of faith, not conversion by the sword. It remains a pluralist, non-violent, and tolerant faith that gains adherents during times of conflict and “social decadence”; however, you'll find Sufis are persecuted in the more traditional fundamentalist societies.

Of course, in Islam there are no "saints", but Sidi Abd el Aziz, Sidi ben Slimane and five others are considered the “Seven Men” – equivalent to Christian saints – because they are all buried in Marrakech. The pilgrimage to their tombs, still being held in late March, was established in the 17th century in order to provide the city with extra religious significance.
4
Koutoubia Mosque and Minaret

4) Koutoubia Mosque and Minaret (must see)

The Koutoubia mosque and minaret, located 200 meters west of Jemaa el-Fnaa on Avenue Mohammed V, make a good orientation landmark in case you get lost in the medina's labyrinth. The name is derived from the Arabic "al-Koutoubiyyin" which translates as "bookseller", since the area was once dense with sellers of books and manuscripts. The largest mosque in Marrakech, the Koutoubia is closed to non-Muslims, but everyone can enjoy the adjacent park with trees (palms, orange, olives), flower beds, fountains and benches at all times – completely free of charge.

A smaller predecessor mosque was built on this site in 1147 by the Almohad dynasty after they had defeated the Almoravides and taken over Marrakech. Unfortunately, its qiblah wall, the one supposed to be facing Mecca, was badly orientated, so instead of simply adjusting its position, the Almohades built a new, larger mosque nearby while the old one fell into neglect. The current mosque is built from a reddish-brown sandstone and is decorated with curved window arches and pointed "merlons" or crenellations.

The square minaret stands 69 meters high by 13 meters wide, with six rooms set on top of one another, and is crowned with a ceramic strip, small tower and four guilded copper balls decreasing in size. The north-western side of the minaret contains ruins and the cisterns from an Almoravid palace which stood on this site before the Almohades took over.

Why You Should Visit:
One of Morocco's biggest mosques – not to be missed!

Tip:
Equally beautiful, day or night, the building reveals different “personalities”, depending on the time of day. It is probably wise to avoid Fridays until after 3pm-ish, when the place is not so busy with worshipers.
Make sure to walk around the entire mosque, as there are picturesque views all around it. Don't miss the gardens behind – a perfect place for a good glass of mint tea and watching the world go by.
5
Kasbah Mosque

5) Kasbah Mosque

The Kasbah Mosque is the second-best-known mosque in Marrakech, after the Koutoubia, and is also one of the biggest and oldest – built in 1190 – where you can still find some typical features of the Almohad architecture. The mosque opens out on a nice square surrounded by interesting buildings, and features a noteworthy minaret – prototypical for many later minarets built in the Maghreb and al-Andalus, with decorations different from those found in the Koutoubia. The imposing exterior of the mosque features high walls crowned at the top by merlons above the row of corbels. Along the walls are the large pointed horseshoe arches, most of which are now walled-in, while some frame the gates of the mosque or accommodate shops.

After successive restorations, the mosque is now in a perfect condition and is actively in use – the call for prayer draws in many hundreds of worshipers here daily (although some say there's enough room to accommodate many thousands of them). Access for non-Muslims is prohibited, but it is just as pleasant and relaxing to sit outside and enjoy the atmosphere. The area is much quieter and more open than most elsewhere in the Medina quarter; here are some really nice cafes to sit at and enjoy the sight of the surrounding impressive architecture.
6
Saadian Tombs

6) Saadian Tombs (must see)

Those who wish to understand the incredible beauty of ancient Marrakech, should visit the Saadian Tombs in the medina's royal district, called the Kasbah.

The Saadian dynasty ruled in Morocco from 1554 until 1659 and almost nothing from their reign has survived till our day, except the tombs which were commissioned by Sultan Ahmed Al-Mansur in 1554 for himself and his family. When the dynasty fell to the Alaouites, the new Sultan wanted everything built by the Saadians destroyed, but drew a line at touching the tombs, which were partially sealed off (although important people were buried here until as late as 1792).

Al-Mansur himself, along with 60 members of the Saadian family, was entombed in the exquisite "Hall of the Twelve Columns" adorned with imported Italian marble, intricate and geometric tile work, gilded honeycomb muqarnas (decorative plasterwork), and elaborate ceilings stunning in detail and vibrant color. The nearby "Hall of the Three Niches" houses important princes while some 170 chancellors and wives are interred in the garden.

The tombs remained hidden until 1917 when they were discovered from aerial photographs, and lovingly restored by a French organization, the Beaux-Arts Service. Due to having been sealed and protected from external conditions, the tombs were remarkably preserved and the Beaux-Arts have done a wonderful job. Those who rest here, indeed rest in peace.

Why You Should Visit:
The stunning architecture of the tombs will keep you in awe of the great design produced back in the day.

Tip:
Ticket lines can be long, so an early morning visit will be generally cooler and more pleasant.
Unfortunately (for English speakers), there is little information in English, so hiring a local guide can enhance your appreciation.
When exiting, go and have a drink at the terrace of the Kasbah Café overlooking the square where men enter the Kasbah Mosque.
Also, on the corner is an argan cooperation with some of the best organic argan oil in Marrakech. Buy some amlou there and you'll never eat Nutella again!

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