A sacred city of Islam, Fez is the oldest of Morocco’s four imperial cities and the country’s third-largest. It was once the capital of Morocco, but later flourished as an educational and cultural center, attracting scholars and artisans. The work of these artisans is showcased in the intricate marble, wood, and tile decorations of the city’s numerous madrassa buildings, which are concealed by their simple brick and timber construction. The Sahrij and Sabaiyin Madrassas were commissioned in 1321 and 1323, respectively, as connected boarding houses in which scholars could live, study, and pray in close proximity to the important religious center of the Andalous Mosque. Today, the madrassas are plagued by mold and vegetation growth, resulting from poor drainage and ground water infiltration. Frequent seismic tremors have split floors and separated walls. Masonry columns buckle dangerously into the central court of Sahrij, which has destroyed the veneer of the decorative plaster and carved wood. While the Sahrij still houses some scholars, the Sabaiyin is sealed to keep out squatters.
2004 World Monuments Watch
In partnership with funding from American Express, WMF was able to aid in the architectural study and urgent stabilization of both structural and decorative elements. Additional protective measures that will reduce the effects of exposure and water infiltration were enacted. As a result of these actions, further rehabilitation and restoration projects were planned to prepare the complex for reuse as scholar dormitories and reopening for tourists. Unfortunately, after these efforts the Sabaiyin madrassa was a victim of looting. In 2009 Several decorative wooden beams and marble columns were removed. This not only damaged the structure’s aesthetic integrity, but caused the collapse of the madrassa’s second floor gallery.
The Sahrij and Sabaiyin Madrassas complex was constructed during the period considered to be the Moroccan architectural “golden age.” During the 1300s, the designs of the region’s structures were heavily influenced by the exporters of immigrant artisans from Kairouan and Andalusia. These imported styles are easily recognizable in the complex: richly carved plaster, woodwork, and zelli (geometric tile mosaic). The signature of the Merinid dynasty, which held power in Morocco at the time of the madrassas’ construction, is visible throughout the complex.