Marrakesh – “Morocco City”, as early foreign travellers called it – has always been something of a marketplace where tribesmen and Berber villagers bring their goods, spend their money and find entertainment. At its heart is the Jemaa el Fna, an open space in the centre of the city, and the stage for a long-established ritual in which shifting circles of onlookers gather round groups of acrobats, drummers, pipe musicians, dancers, storytellers, comedians and fairground acts. The city’s architectural attractions are no less compelling: the magnificent ruin of the El Badi Palace, the delicate carving of the Saadian Tombs and, above all, the Koutoubia Minaret, the most perfect Islamic monument in North Africa.
It won’t take you long to see why Marrakesh is called the Red City. The natural red ochre pigment that bedecks its walls and buildings can at times seem dominant, but there’s no shortage of other colours. Like all Moroccan cities, it’s a town of two halves: the ancient walled Medina, founded by Sultan Youssef Ben Tachfine in the Middle Ages, and the colonial Ville Nouvelle, built by the French in the mid-twentieth century. Each has its own delights – the Medina with its ancient palaces and mansions, labyrinthine souks and deeply traditional way of life, and the Ville Nouvelle with its pavement cafés, trendy boutiques, gardens and boulevards.
Marrakesh has become Morocco’s capital of chic, attracting the rich and famous from Europe and beyond. Though the vast majority of its residents are poor by any European standard, an increasing number of wealthy foreigners are taking up residence and their influence on the tourist experience is evident.
Marrakesh has Berber rather than Arab origins, having developed as the metropolis of Atlas tribes. Once upon a time, it was the entrepôt for goods – slaves, gold, ivory and even “Morocco” leather – brought by caravan from the ancient empires of Mali and Songhay via their great desert port of Timbuktu. All of these strands of commerce and population shaped the city’s souks and its way of life, and even today, in the crowds and performers of the Jemaa el Fna, the nomadic and West African influence can still seem quite distinct.
Despite its size and the maze of its souks, Marrakesh is not too hard to navigate. The broad, open space of the Jemaa el Fna is at the heart of the Medina, with the main souks to its north, and most of the main sights within easy walking distance. Just west of the Jemaa el Fna is the unmistakable landmark of the Koutoubia Minaret, and from here, the city’s main artery, Avenue Mohammed V, leads out through the Medina walls at Bab Nkob and up the length of Guéliz, the downtown area of the Ville Nouvelle. You might want to consider hiring a guide to explore the Medina, but given a decent map, it really isn’t necessary.
Marrakesh was founded near the beginning of Almoravid rule, by the first Almoravid dynasty ruler, Youssef Ben Tachfine, around 1062–70. It must at first have taken the form of a camp and market with a ksour, or fortified town, gradually developing round it. The first seven-kilometre circuit of walls was raised in 1126–27, replacing an earlier stockade of thorn bushes. These, many times rebuilt, are essentially the city’s present walls – made of tabia, the red mud of the plains, mixed and strengthened with lime.
The golden age
Of the rest of the Almoravids’ building works, hardly a trace remains. The dynasty that replaced them – the Almohads – sacked the city for three days after taking possession of it in 1147, but they kept it as their empire’s capital.
With the 1184 accession to the throne of the third Almohad sultan, Yacoub el Mansour, the city entered its greatest period. Kissarias were constructed for the sale and storage of Italian and Oriental cloth, a new kasbah was begun, and a succession of poets and scholars arrived at the court. Mansour’s reign also saw the construction of the great Koutoubia Mosque and minaret.
By the 1220s, the empire was beginning to fragment amid a series of factional civil wars, and Marrakesh fell into the familiar pattern of pillage, ruination and rebuilding. In 1269, it lost its status as capital when the Fez-based Merenids took power, though in 1374–86 it did form the basis of a breakaway state under the Merenid pretender Abderrahman Ibn Taflusin.
Taking Marrakesh, then devastated by famine, in 1521, the Saadians provided a last burst of imperial splendour. Their dynasty’s greatest figure, Ahmed el Mansour, having invaded Mali and seized control of the most lucrative caravan routes in Africa, had the El Badi Palace – Marrakesh’s largest and greatest building project – constructed from the proceeds of this new wealth, and the dynasty also of course bequeathed to Marrakesh their wonderful mausoleum, the Saadian Tombs.
Under the Alaouites Marrakesh lost its status as capital to Meknes, but remained an important imperial city, and the need to maintain a southern base against the tribes ensured the regular presence of its sultans. But from the seventeenth to the nineteenth century, it shrank back from its medieval walls and lost much of its former trade.
During the last decades prior to the Protectorate, the city’s fortunes revived somewhat as it enjoyed a return to favour with the Shereefian court. Moulay Hassan (1873–94) and Moulay Abd el Aziz (1894–1908) both ran their governments from here in a bizarre closing epoch of the old ways, accompanied by a final bout of frantic palace building. On the arrival of the French, Marrakesh gave rise to a short-lived pretender, the religious leader El Hiba, and for most of the colonial period it was run as a virtual fiefdom of its pasha, T’hami el Glaoui – the most powerful, autocratic and extraordinary character of his age.
Since independence, the city has undergone considerable change, with rural emigration from the Atlas and beyond, new methods of cultivation on the Haouz plain and the development of a sizeable tourist industry. After Casablanca, it’s Morocco’s second largest city, with slightly over a million inhabitants, and its population continues to rise. It has a thriving industrial area and is the most important market and administrative centre of southern Morocco.Read More
El Glaoui: the Pasha of Marrakesh
El Glaoui: the Pasha of Marrakesh
T’hami el Glaoui, Pasha of Marrakesh during the French Protectorate, was the last great southern tribal leader, a shrewd supporter of colonial rule (see The Glaoui) and personal friend of Winston Churchill. Cruel and magnificent in equal measure, he was a spectacular party-giver in an age where rivals were not lacking. At the extraordinary difas or banquets held at the Dar el Glaoui for his Western friends, “nothing”, as Gavin Maxwell wrote, “was impossible.” Hashish and opium were freely available, and “to his guests T’hami gave whatever they wanted, whether it might be a diamond ring, a present of money in gold, or a Berber girl or boy from the High Atlas”.
As a despot, and agent of colonial rule, he was so hated that, on his death in 1956, a mob looted the palace, destroying its fittings and the cars in its garages, and lynching any of his henchmen that they found. However, passions have burnt out over the years, and the family has been rehabilitated. One of T’hami’s sons, Glaoui Abdelssadak, rose to high rank in the Moroccan civil service and became vice president of Gulf Oil.
The dish for which Marrakesh is known throughout Morocco is tanjia, or jugged meat, usually beef but sometimes lamb. Strictly speaking, the tanjia is the jug itself, and the traditional way to make a tanjia is to go the butcher with your jug (or use one of the butcher’s), buy the meat and spices to put in it, and then take it to a hammam and have it cooked slowly in the embers of the bathhouse furnace. When the urn emerges from the embers a few hours later, the meat is tender and ready to eat. Most reasonably upmarket Marrakesh restaurants offer tanjia, as do cheaper tanjia diners such as the tanjia stalls opposite the olive souk (see map), where it is best ordered in advance.
Festivals and events
Festivals and events
The two-week Festival National des Arts Populaires (w marrakechfestival.com), held in June or July each year, is the country’s biggest and best folklore and music festival, with musicians and dancers coming in from across Morocco and beyond, spanning the range of Moroccan music; shows start around 9pm and are preceded by a fantasia at Bab Jedid, with Berber horsemen at full gallop firing guns into the air. Marrakesh also has an annual Marathon, run on the third or fourth Sunday in January (see w marathon-marrakech.com for details), and the Marrakesh Film Festival in November or early December (w festivalmarrakech.info), in which the featured movies are shown at cinemas across town, and on large screens in the El Badi Palace and the Jemaa el Fna.
For gay men, a certain amount of cruising goes on in the crowds of the Jemaa el Fna in the evening, and there’s a gay presence at the Diamant Noir nightclub behind Hôtel Marrakesh (look for the sign on Av Mohammed V). The gay male tourist scene in Marrakesh is growing, and a number of riads are run by gay couples, but there is no easily perceptible lesbian scene in Marrakesh as yet. w travelmarrakech.co.uk has a small section on gay-friendly places.
The Medina has the main concentration of small, budget hotels, especially in the area around the Jemaa el Fna. It is also where you’ll find most of Marrakesh’s riads, usually hidden away deep in its backstreets. Guéliz, whose hotels tend to be concentrated in the mid range, is handier for transport, especially for the train station. Hotels in Hivernage and Semlalia are upmarket, in modern buildings with swimming pools, but they’re pretty soulless. Advance bookings are a wise idea, especially for the more popular places in the Medina. The busiest times are the Easter and Christmas/New Year holiday periods, when virtually every decent place can be full to capacity.
Eating and drinking
Eating and drinking
Guéliz has most of the city’s French-style cafés, bistros and restaurants, and most of the bars. In the Medina, there are the Jemaa el Fna food stalls, many inexpensive café-restaurants, and a number of upmarket palace-restaurants.
Bars and nightlife
Bars and nightlife
Entertainment and nightlife in the Medina revolve around Jemaa el Fna. For a drink in the Medina, choices are limited; apart from the Tazi, you can get a beer – or more likely a cocktail – in the Café Arabe, Kosybar or Le Tanjia, all of which double as upmarket bars. In the Ville Nouvelle, there’s more variety; some of the bars are rather male, but women should be all right in the Chesterfield and also in the bars of hotels such as the Akabar and Ibis, as well as the Comptoir Darna, which is an upmarket bar as well as a restaurant. Nightclubs can be fun, though some at the top end of the market are a bit snooty, and may frown, for example, on jeans or trainers; most play a mix of Western and Arabic music, but it’s the latter that really fills the dancefloor. None of them really gets going until around midnight (in fact, some don’t open until then), and they usually stay open until 3 or 4am.