Visiting the Koutoubia Mosque: Everything You Need to Know
The Moroccan city of Marrakesh is one of Africa’s most famous cities. Home to some of the best Islamic architecture in the region, including palaces, mosques and madrassas, a stunning kasbah, and one of the largest traditional Muslim marketplaces in the world, it’s perhaps best known for the magnificent Minaret of Yaqub Al-Mansur at the Koutoubia Mosque.
This historical masterpiece is one of the highlights of any visit to Marrakesh. Although it isn’t possible to visit the interior of the mosque unless you’re a Muslim, there are plenty of opportunities for you to see this stunning structure from the outside.
Read on for all you need to know about visiting the Koutoubia Mosque…
The Koutoubia Mosque
The Koutoubia Mosque is the largest mosque in Marrakesh, and the tallest structure in the city. Situated in Marrakesh’s Djemaa el Fna Square – a bustling square at the heart of the city, and one of the world’s greatest meeting places – the stately minaret of the mosque towers over its surroundings.
This isn’t because it’s particularly tall, standing at 69 metres – although it was an engineering feat when constructed – but because of regulations dictating that the buildings in the surrounding medina cannot be higher than a palm tree. For this reason, it’s one of the city’s main landmarks and is visible from afar.
Five times a day, it isn’t just the minaret that rises over Marrakesh, but the voice of the muezzin calling the faithful to prayer from its top. In the evening, as the lights flicker to illuminate the snake-charmers, fruit-sellers, and henna-painters in the square, and people meet for supper while cooking smoke fills the air, this is one of the most magical times to visit the area.
These sights and sounds have greeted visitors to Marrakesh for over 700 years, as weary travellers arrived via caravan across the desert to reach the centre of the city.
A Little History
Construction on the Koutoubia Mosque began around 1150, shortly after the Almohad conquest of Marrakesh. Its location had historical significance – it was the site of a late 11th century kasbah, the Dar al Hajar, home of the Almoravid leader, Ali ibn Yusuf.
The Almoravids, previous rulers of Marrakesh, were staunch enemies of the Almohads. After the Almohad conquest of Marrakesh, the new leaders set about the complete destruction of all religious monuments and significant buildings in the city, believing the buildings to be tainted as they considered the Almoravids to be heretics.
The original mosque was completed in 1157, but there was a miscalculation in the construction that meant its orientation was incorrect – all mosques are supposed to point in the direction of Mecca, indicated by the mihrab, the prayer niche. Although a relatively minor issue – because the faithful could correct this under the direction of the imam by turning to face the correct direction – a decision was made to build a second mosque, the present day Koutoubia Mosque.
The two mosques were identical in everything aside from orientation, and they coexisted for 30 years, the original mosque most likely serving as a type of annexe to house the large religious population. Eventually the older mosque fell into ruin and was demolished. Its existence can be seen by the bricked-up spaces on the northwest wall where there were connecting doors, while excavations confirm the misalignment of the original structure.
The Koutoubia Mosque is known by several different names, including Jami’ al-Kutubiyah, Kutubiya Mosque, and Kutubiyyin Mosque. Its various names and associated spellings are based on the Arabic word, koutoubiyyin, which means bookseller – the mosque’s name is translated as ‘The Bookseller’s Mosque’. This is because originally up to 100 booksellers worked in the souk at its base