The Ben Youssef Madrassa was one of the largest Islamic colleges in Northern Africa. It’s shaped like a hallow rectangle, with 130 student dormitory cells surrounding a large courtyard. The courtyard is spacious, with beautiful blue skies above, the absolution pool in the middle, and everywhere you look, intricate wood carvings and colorful tiles on the walls. Inscribed above its entrance is the quote “you who enter my door, may your highest hopes be exceeded,” a blessing that must have invigorated students coming through its doors over the past five centuries.
Walking through the hallways of the dormitories on the upper level, the environment is less magnificent and more austere. The rooms are small and cramped, most had no windows, and the walls had no adornments. Perhaps it was to encourage the students to focus on their inner selves, yet the cynic in me wonders whether like many other institutions, the design deliberately catered towards the visitor rather than the ones who dwelled there. Looking out from one of the rare rooms with a window down to the courtyard full of impressed tourists, I wonder how a student earns the privilege of a room with a view.