Marrakech

Marrakesh, also known by the French spelling Marrakech, is a major city of the Kingdom of Morocco. It is the fourth largest city in the country, after Casablanca, Fez and Tangier. It is the capital city of the mid-southwestern region of Marrakesh-Safi. Located to the north of the foothills of the snow-capped Atlas Mountains, Marrakesh is situated 580 km (360 mi) southwest of Tangier, 327 km (203 mi) southwest of the Moroccan capital of Rabat, 239 km (149 mi) south of Casablanca, and 246 km (153 mi) northeast of Agadir.

Marrakesh is possibly the most important of Morocco’s four former imperial cities. The region has been inhabited by Berber farmers since Neolithic times, but the actual city was founded in 1062, by Abu Bakr ibn Umar, chieftain and cousin of Almoravid king Yusuf ibn Tashfin. In the 12th century, the Almoravids built many madrasas (Koranic schools) and mosques in Marrakesh that bear Andalusian influences. The red walls of the city, built by Ali ibn Yusuf in 1122–1123, and various buildings constructed in red sandstone during this period, have given the city the nickname of the “Red City” or “Ochre City”. Marrakesh grew rapidly and established itself as a cultural, religious, and trading centre for the Maghreb and sub-Saharan Africa; Jemaa el-Fnaa is the busiest square in Africa.

After a period of decline, the city was surpassed by Fez, but in the early 16th century, Marrakesh again became the capital of the kingdom. The city regained its preeminence under wealthy Saadian sultans Abu Abdallah al-Qaim and Ahmad al-Mansur, who embellished the city with sumptuous palaces such as the El Badi Palace (1578) and restored many ruined monuments. Beginning in the 17th century, the city became popular among Sufi pilgrims for Morocco’s seven patron saints, who are entombed here. In 1912 the French Protectorate in Morocco was established and T’hami El Glaoui became Pasha of Marrakesh and held this position nearly throughout the duration of the protectorate until the role was dissolved upon independence of Morocco and the reestablishment of the monarchy in 1956. In 2009, Marrakesh mayor Fatima Zahra Mansouri became the second woman to be elected mayor in Morocco.

Like many Moroccan cities, Marrakesh comprises an old fortified city packed with vendors and their stalls (the medina, a UNESCO World Heritage Site), bordered by modern neighbourhoods, the most prominent of which is Gueliz. Today it is one of the busiest cities in Africa and serves as a major economic centre and tourist destination. Tourism is strongly advocated by the reigning Moroccan monarch, Mohammed VI, with the goal of doubling the number of tourists visiting Morocco to 20 million by 2020. Despite the economic recession, real estate and hotel development in Marrakesh has grown dramatically in the 21st century. Marrakesh is particularly popular with the French, and numerous French celebrities own property in the city. Marrakesh has the largest traditional market (souk) in Morocco, with some 18 souks selling wares ranging from traditional Berber carpets to modern consumer electronics. Crafts employ a significant percentage of the population, who primarily sell their products to tourists. Marrakesh is one of North Africa’s largest centres of wildlife trade, despite the illegality of much of this trade. Much of this trade can be found in the medina and adjacent squares. Tortoises are particularly popular for sale as pets but Barbary macaques and snakes can also be seen.

Marrakesh is served by Ménara International Airport and the Marrakesh railway station, which connects the city to Casablanca and northern Morocco. Marrakesh has several universities and schools, including Cadi Ayyad University. A number of Moroccan football clubs are located here, including Najm de Marrakech, KAC Marrakech, Mouloudia de Marrakech and Chez Ali Club de Marrakech. The Marrakesh Street Circuit hosts the World Touring Car Championship, Auto GP and FIA Formula Two Championship races.

Jemaa el-Fnaa & Souks

The Jemaa el-Fnaa is one of the best-known squares in Africa and is the centre of city activity and trade. It has been described as a “world-famous square”, “a metaphorical urban icon, a bridge between the past and the present, the place where (spectacularized) Moroccan tradition encounters modernity.” It has been part of the UNESCO World Heritage site since 1985. The name roughly means “the assembly of trespassers” or malefactors. Jemaa el-Fnaa was renovated along with much of the Marrakech city, whose walls were extended by Abu Yaqub Yusuf and particularly by Yaqub al-Mansur in 1147–1158. The surrounding mosque, palace, hospital, parade ground and gardens around the edges of the marketplace were also overhauled, and the Kasbah was fortified. Subsequently, with the fluctuating fortunes of the city, Jemaa el-Fnaa saw periods of decline and renewal. Historically this square was used for public decapitations by rulers who sought to maintain their power by frightening the public. The square attracted dwellers from the surrounding desert and mountains to trade here, and stalls were raised in the square from early in its history. The square attracted tradesmen, snake charmers (“wild, dark, frenzied men with long disheveled hair falling over their naked shoulders”), dancing boys of the Chleuh Atlas tribe, and musicians playing pipes, tambourines and African drums. Richard Hamilton said that Jemaa el-Fnaa once “reeked of Berber particularism, of backward-looking, ill-educated countrymen, rather than the reformist, pan-Arab internationalism and command economy that were the imagined future.” Today the square attracts people from a diversity of social and ethnic backgrounds and tourists from all around the world. Snake charmers, acrobats, magicians, mystics, musicians, monkey trainers, herb sellers, story-tellers, dentists, pickpockets, and entertainers in medieval garb still populate the square.

Marrakesh has the largest traditional Berber market in Morocco and the image of the city is closely associated with its souks. Paul Sullivan cites the souks as the principal shopping attraction in the city: “A honeycomb of intricately connected alleyways, this fundamental section of the old city is a micro-medina in itself, comprising a dizzying number of stalls and shops that range from itsy kiosks no bigger than an elf’s wardrobe to scruffy store-fronts that morph into glittering Aladdin’s Caves once you’re inside.” Historically the souks of Marrakesh were divided into retail areas for particular goods such as leather, carpets, metalwork and pottery. These divisions still roughly exist but with significant overlap. Many of the souks sell items like carpets and rugs, traditional Muslim attire, leather bags, and lanterns. Haggling is still a very important part of trade in the souks.

One of the largest souks is Souk Semmarine, which sells everything from brightly coloured bejewelled sandals and slippers and leather pouffes to jewellery and kaftans. Souk Ableuh contains stalls which specialize in lemons, chilis, capers, pickles, green, red, and black olives, and mint, a common ingredient of Moroccan cuisine and tea. Similarly, Souk Kchacha specializes in dried fruit and nuts, including dates, figs, walnuts, cashews and apricots. Rahba Qedima contains stalls selling hand-woven baskets, natural perfumes, knitted hats, scarves, tee shirts, Ramadan tea, ginseng, and alligator and iguana skins. Criee Berbiere, to the northeast of this market, is noted for its dark Berber carpets and rugs. Souk Siyyaghin is known for its jewellery, and Souk Smata nearby is noted for its extensive collection of babouches and belts. Souk Cherratine specializes in leatherware, and Souk Belaarif sells modern consumer goods. Souk Haddadine specializes in ironware and lanterns.

Ensemble Artisanal is a government-run complex of small arts and crafts which offers a range of leather goods, textiles and carpets. Young apprentices are taught a range of crafts in the workshop at the back of this complex.

Palaces and Palais to visit in Marrakech

The historic wealth of the city is manifested in palaces, mansions and other lavish residences. The main palaces are El Badi Palace, the Royal Palace and Bahia Palace. Riads (Moroccan mansions) are common in Marrakesh. Based on the design of the Roman villa, they are characterized by an open central garden courtyard surrounded by high walls. This construction provided the occupants with privacy and lowered the temperature within the building. Buildings of note inside the Medina are Riad Argana, Riad Obry, Riad Enija, Riad el Mezouar, Riad Frans Ankone, Dar Moussaine, Riad Lotus, Riad Elixir, Riad les Bougainvilliers, Riad Dar Foundouk, Dar Marzotto, Dar Darma, and Riad Pinco Pallino. Others of note outside the Medina area include Ksar Char Bagh, Amanjena, Villa Maha, Dar Ahlam, Dar Alhind and Dar Tayda.

El Badi Palace

The El Badi Palace flanks the eastern side of the Kasbah. It was built by Saadian sultan Ahmad al-Mansur after his success against the Portuguese at the Battle of the Three Kings in 1578. The lavish palace, which took around a quarter of a century to build, was funded by compensation from the Portuguese and African gold and sugar cane revenue. This allowed Carrara marble to be brought from Italy and other materials to be shipped from France, Spain and India. It is a larger version of the Alhambra’s Court of the Lions. Although the palace is now a ruin with little left but the outer walls, the site has become the location of the annual Marrakech Folklore Festival and other events.

Royal Palace

The Royal Palace, also known as Dar el-Makhzen, is located next to the Badi Palace. The Almohads built the palace in the 12th century on the site of their kasba, and it was partly remodeled by the Saadians in the 16th century and the Alaouites in the 17th century. Historically it was one of the palaces owned by the Moroccan king, who employed some of the most talented craftsmen in the city for its construction. The palace is not open to the public, and is now privately owned by French businessman Dominique du Beldi. The rooms are large, with unusually high ceilings for Marrakesh, with zellij (elaborate geometric terracotta tile work covered with enamel) and cedar painted ceilings.

Bahia Palace

Back courtyard of the Bahia Palace

The Bahia Palace, set in extensive gardens, was built in the late 19th century by the Grand Vizier of Marrakesh, Si Ahmed ben Musa (Bou-Ahmed). Bou Ahmed resided here with his four wives, 24 concubines and many children. With a name meaning “brilliance”, it was intended to be the greatest palace of its time, designed to capture the essence of Islamic and Moroccan architectural styles. Bou-Ahmed paid special attention to the privacy of the palace in its construction and employed architectural features such as multiple doors which prevented passers-by from seeing into the interior. The palace took seven years to build, with hundreds of craftsmen from Fez working on its wood, carved stucco and zellij. The palace is set in a two-acre (8,000 m²) garden with rooms opening onto courtyards. The palace acquired a reputation as one of the finest in Morocco and was the envy of other wealthy citizens. Upon the death of Bou-Ahmed in 1900, the palace was raided by Sultan Abd al-Aziz.

Gardens

The Menara gardens are located to the west of the city, at the gates of the Atlas mountains. They were built around 1130 by the Almohad ruler Abd al-Mu’min. The name menara derives from the pavilion with its small green pyramid roof (menzeh). The pavilion was built during the 16th century Saadi dynasty and renovated in 1869 by sultan Abderrahmane of Morocco, who used to stay here in summertime.

The pavilion and a nearby artificial lake are surrounded by orchards and olive groves. The lake was created to irrigate the surrounding gardens and orchards using a sophisticated system of underground channels called a qanat. The basin is supplied with water through an old hydraulic system which conveys water from the mountains located approximately 30 kilometres (19 mi) away from Marrakesh. There is also a small amphitheater and a symmetrical pool where films are screened. Carp fish can be seen in the pond.

The Majorelle Garden, on Avenue Yacoub el Mansour, was at one time the home of the landscape painter Jacques Majorelle. Famed designer Yves Saint Laurent bought and restored the property, which features a stele erected in his memory, and the Museum of Islamic Art, which is housed in a dark blue building. The garden, open to the public since 1947, has a large collection of plants from five continents including cacti, palms and bamboo.

The Agdal Gardens, located south of the medina and also built in the 12th century, are royal orchards surrounded by pise walls. Measuring 400 hectares (990 acres) in size, the gardens feature citrus, apricot, pomegranate, olive and cypress trees. Sultan Moulay Hassan’s harem resided at the Dar al Baida pavilion, which was situated within these gardens. This site is also known for its historic swimming pool, where a Sultan is said to have drowned.

The Koutoubia Gardens are situated behind the Koutoubia Mosque. They feature orange and palm trees, and are frequented by storks. The Mamounia Gardens, more than 100 years old and named after Prince Moulay Mamoun, have olive and orange trees as well as a variety of floral displays.

In 2016, artist André Heller opened the acclaimed garden ANIMA near Ourika, which combines a large collection of plants, palms, bamboo and cacti as well as works by Keith Haring, Auguste Rodin, Hans Werner Geerdts and other artists.