The area south of Jemaa el Fna is quite different from that to the north of it, generally more open and home to Dar el Makhzen (the royal palace), the kasbah (old inner citadel), and the Mellah (former Jewish quarter). The two obvious focal sights, not to be missed, are the Saadian Tombs, preserved in the shadow of the Kasbah Mosque, and El Badi, the ruined palace of Ahmed el Mansour. Also worth seeing are the Bahia Palace and the nearby Dar Si Said and Tiskiwin museums.
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El Badi Palace
El Badi Palace
Though substantially in ruins, and reduced throughout to its red pisé walls, enough remains of El Badi to suggest that its name – “The Incomparable” – was not entirely immodest. The palace was originally commissioned by the Saadian sultan Ahmed el Mansour shortly after his accession in 1578. The money for it came from the enormous ransom paid by the Portuguese after the Battle of the Three Kings. It took his seventeenth-century successor Moulay Ismail over ten years of systematic work to strip the palace of everything valuable, and there’s still a lingering sense of luxury and grandeur. What you see today is essentially the ceremonial part of the palace complex, planned on a grand scale for the reception of ambassadors, and not meant for everyday living.
The scale of the palace, with its sunken gardens and vast, ninety-metre-long pool, is certainly unrivalled, and the odd traces of zellij and plaster still left evoke a decor that was probably as rich as that of the Saadian Tombs. The most enduring account of the palace concerns its state opening, a fabulous occasion attended by ambassadors from several European powers and by all the sheikhs and caids of the kingdom. Surveying the effect, Ahmed turned to his court jester for an opinion on the new palace. “Sidi,” the man replied, “this will make a magnificent ruin”.
The central court
The palace’s entrance was originally in the southeast corner of the complex, but today you enter from the north, through the Green Pavilion, emerging into a vast central court, over 130m long and nearly as wide. In its northeast corner, you can climb up to get an overview from the ramparts, and a closer view of the storks that nest atop them.
Within the central court are four sunken gardens, two on the northern side and two on the southern side. Pools separate the two gardens on each side, and there are four smaller pools in the four corners of the court, which is constructed on a substructure of vaults in order to allow the circulation of water through the pools and gardens. When the pools are filled – as during the June folklore festival that takes place here – they are an incredibly majestic sight.
On each side of the courtyard were summer pavilions. Of the Crystal Pavilion, to the east, only the foundations survive. On the opposite side, a monumental hall that was used by the sultan on occasions of state was known as the Koubba el Hamsiniya (The Fifty Pavilion), after its size in cubits.
Stables and dungeons
South of the courtyard, accessed just to the right of the building housing the minbar, are ruins of the palace stables, and beyond them, leading towards the intriguing walls of the present royal palace, a series of dungeons, used into the last century as a state prison.
The Koutoubia Minbar
The original minbar (pulpit) from the Koutoubia Mosque is housed in a pavilion in the southwest corner of the main courtyard, and can be seen for an additional fee. It may not sound like much, but this minbar was in its day one of the most celebrated works of art in the Muslim world. Commissioned from the Andalusian capital Cordoba in 1137 by the last Almoravid sultan, Ali Ben Youssef, it took eight years to complete, and was covered with the most exquisite inlay work, of which, sadly, only patches remain. When the Almohads took power, they installed the minbar in their newly built Koutoubia Mosque, where it remained until it was removed for restoration in 1962, and eventually brought here. Unfortunately, members of the public are not usually allowed to walk all the way round it to inspect the surviving inlay work, but the gardien may relent if you show a particular interest. Photography is not usually allowed.
The Bahia Palace
The Bahia Palace
The Bahia Palace was originally built in 1866–7 for Si Moussa, a former slave who had risen to become Moulay Hassan’s chamberlain, and then grand vizier. His son, Bou Ahmed, who himself held the post of chamberlain under Moulay Hassan, became kingmaker in 1894 when Hassan died while returning home from a harka (tax-collecting expedition). Ahmed concealed news of the sultan’s death until he was able to declare Hassan’s fourteen-year-old son Moulay Abd el Aziz sultan in his place, with himself as grand vizier and regent (see The last sultans). He thus gained virtually complete control over the state, which he exercised until his death in 1900. He began enlarging the Bahia (meaning “brilliance”) in the same year as his coup, adding a mosque, a hammam and even a vegetable garden. When he died, his servants ransacked the palace, but it was restored and, during the Protectorate, housed the French Resident General.
The small riad
Visitors enter the palace from the west, through an arcaded courtyard which leads to a small riad (enclosed garden), part of Bou Ahmed’s extension. The riad is decorated with beautiful carved stucco and cedarwood, and salons lead off it on three sides. The eastern salon leads through to the council room, and thence through a vestibule – where it’s worth pausing to look up at the lovely painted ceiling – to the great courtyard of Si Moussa’s original palace. The rooms surrounding the courtyard are also all worth checking out for their painted wooden ceilings.
The large riad
South of the great courtyard is the large riad, the heart of Si Moussa’s palace, fragrant with fruit trees and melodious with birdsong, approaching the very ideal of beauty in Arabic domestic architecture. To its east and west are halls decorated with fine zellij fireplaces and painted wooden ceilings. From here, you leave the palace via the private apartment built in 1898 for Ahmed’s wife, Lalla Zinab, where again you should look up to check out the painted ceiling, carved stucco, and stained-glass windows.