Marrakesh Travel Guide
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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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The two-week Festival National des Arts Populaires 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, and the Marrakesh Film Festival in November or early December, 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. The Marrakech Biennale is a visual arts festival held in even- numbered years in late April or early May, with events held at locations around town, and in March every year, TEDx Marrakech is a series of TED-style talks delivered at the Es Saadi hotel in Hivernage.
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. Travelmarrakech has a small section on gay-friendly places.
There are a massive number of shops in Marrakesh selling all kinds of crafts, but nothing you won’t get cheaper elsewhere. Marrakesh’s attraction is that you don’t have to go elsewhere to get it, and if you’re flying home out of Marrakesh, then buying your souvenirs here means you won’t have to lug them round the country with you.
Place de la Kissaria, an open space surrounded by important public buildings, sits at the northern end of the souks area. Its north side is dominated by the Ben Youssef Mosque, successor to an original put up by the city’s Almoravid founders. The mosque was completely rebuilt under the Almohads, and several times since, so that the building you see today dates largely from the nineteenth century.
The Almoravid koubba (Koubba Ba’adiyn) is just a small, two-storey kiosk, but as the only Almoravid building to survive intact in Morocco (excepting possibly a minaret in Tit near El Jadida), its style is at the root of all Moroccan architecture. Its motifs – such as pine cones, palms and acanthus leaves – appear again in later buildings such as the nearby Ben Youssef Medersa. The windows on each of the different sides became the classic shapes of Almohad and Merenid design – as did the merlons, the complex “ribs” on the outside of the dome, and the square and star-shaped octagon on the inside, which is itself repeated at each of its corners. It was probably just a small ablutions annexe to the Ben Youssef Mosque, but its architecture gives us our only clue as to what that mosque might originally have looked like.
Excavated only in 1952, the koubba had previously been covered over amid the many rebuildings of the Ben Youssef Mosque. It is well below today’s ground level, and you have to go down two flights of stairs to get to the level it was built at, now uncovered once again thanks to excavations. Once down there, you can also look around the attendant facilities, including a large water cistern, and remains of latrines and fountains for performing ablutions, much like those you will still find adjacent to many Moroccan mosques.
The Ben Youssef Medersa was a koranic school attached to the Ben Youssef Mosque, where students learned the Koran by rote, and is the most beautifully decorated building in Marrakesh, with lashings of classic Moroccan decor – zellij tiling, stucco plasterwork, carved cedarwood – all worked to the very highest standards.
Like most of its counterparts up in Fez, the Ben Youssef was a Merenid foundation, established by the “Black Sultan” Abou el Hassan (1331–49), but rebuilt in the 1560s, under the Saadians. As with the slightly later Saadian Tombs, no surface is left undecorated, and the overall quality of its craftsmanship, whether in carved wood, stuccowork or zellij tilework, is startling.
The central courtyard, its carved cedarwood lintels weathered almost flat on the most exposed side, is unusually large. Along two sides run wide, sturdy, columned arcades, which were probably used to supplement the space for teaching in the neighbouring mosque. Above them are some of the windows of the dormitory quarters, which are reached by stairs from the entry vestibule, and from which you can get an interesting perspective – and attempt to fathom how over eight hundred students were once housed in the building. One room is furnished as it would have been when in use.
At its far end, the court opens onto a prayer hall, where the decoration, mellowed on the outside with the city’s familiar pink tone, is at its best preserved and most elaborate, with a predominance of pine cone and palm motifs.
The main route between the Ben Youssef Medersa and the city gate of Bab Debbagh is marked at its halfway point by Place el Moukef, more an intersection than a square, where four routes meet. Eastward, Rue Souk des Fassis, the road to the Ben Youssef Medersa, is lined by fondouks, while in the opposite direction, Rue du Bab Debbagh passes through the rather smelly tanneries area on its way to Bab Debbagh. Northward, Rue Bab el Khemis leads to another city gate, Bab el Khemis, while Rue Essebtiyne, leading south, forks after 200m. Bearing right here (if coming from Place el Moukef), you come to Place Ben Salah, where the Zaouia of Sidi Ben Salah, with its very fine and prominent minaret, was commissioned by a fourteenth-century Merenid sultan.
One of the most characteristic types of building in the Medina is the fondouk or caravanserai. Originally inns used by visiting merchants when they were in Marrakesh to trade in its souks, fondouks have a courtyard in the middle surrounded by what were originally stables, while the upper level contained rooms for the merchants. Some date back to Saadian times (1520–1669), and some still have fine original woodcarving or stuccowork.
Today, Marrakesh’s fondouks are in varying states of repair; some have become private residences, others commercial premises. Some have been converted to house tourist souvenir shops and welcome visitors, but even in others, the doors to the courtyards are often left open, and no one seems to mind if you wander in to have a look.
Interesting fondouks include: a group on Rue Dar el Bacha by the junction with Rue Mouassine, several of which welcome visitors; a couple just south of the junction on Rue Mouassine itself; a row on the south side of Rue Bab Debbagh, behind the Ben Youssef Medersa; a whole series along Rue Amesfah, north of the Ben Youssef Mosque; and one directly opposite the Chrob ou Chouf fountain. Terrasse le Medersa restaurant is on the terrace of a fondouk.
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.
There’s nowhere in Morocco like the Jemaa el Fna – no place that so effortlessly involves you and keeps you coming back for more. By day, most of the square is just a big open space, in which a handful of snake charmers bewitch their cobras with flutes, medicine men (especially in the northeast of the square) display cures and nostrums, and tooth-pullers, wielding fearsome pliers, offer to pluck the pain from out of the heads of toothache sufferers, trays of extracted molars attesting to their skill. It isn’t until late afternoon that the square really gets going. At dusk, as in France and Spain, people come out for an early evening promenade (especially in Rue Bab Agnaou), and the square gradually fills until it becomes a whole carnival of storytellers, acrobats, musicians and entertainers. Come on down and you’ll soon be immersed in the ritual: wandering round, squatting amid the circles of onlookers, giving a dirham or two as your contribution. If you want a respite, you can move over to the rooftop terraces, such as the Café du Grand Balcon, for a vista over the square, its storytellers and musicians, and the crowds who come to see them.
As a foreigner in the Jemaa, you can feel something of an interloper. Most of the crowd are Moroccan of course (few foreigners, for example, will understand the storytellers’ tales), but tourists also make a major contribution to both the atmosphere and the cash flow. Sometimes a storyteller or musician may pick on you to take part or contribute generously to the end-of-show collection and, entering into the spectacle, it’s best to go denuded of the usual tourist trappings such as watches, money-belts or too much money; pickpockets and scam artists operate (giving a “present” and then demanding payment for it is an old scam to beware of, asking tourists to change counterfeit euro coins is a more recent one). The crowds around performers are sometimes used as an opportunity to grope female foreigners, and by male Moroccans and gay male tourists for cruising.
Sideshow attractions include games of hoop-the-bottle, fortune-tellers sitting under umbrellas with packs of fortune-telling cards at the ready and women with piping bags full of henna paste, ready to paint hands, feet or arms with “tattoos” that will last up to three months, though beware of synthetic “black henna”, which contains a toxic chemical; only red henna is natural (the Henna Café guarantees to use only natural henna).
For refreshment, stalls offer orange and grapefruit juice (but have it squeezed in front of you if you don’t want it adulterated with water and sugar, or even squash), while neighbouring handcarts are piled high with dates, dried figs, almonds and walnuts, especially delicious in winter when they are freshly picked in the surrounding countryside. As dusk falls, the square becomes a huge open-air dining area, packed with stalls lit by gas lanterns, and the air is filled with wonderful smells and plumes of cooking smoke spiralling up into the night.
The souks north of the Jemaa el Fna seem vast the first time you venture in, and almost impossible to navigate, but in fact the area that they cover is pretty compact. A long, covered street, Rue Souk Smarine, runs for half their length and then splits into two lanes – Souk el Attarin and Souk el Kebir. Off these are virtually all the individual souks: alleys and small squares devoted to specific crafts, where you can often watch part of the production process.
If you are staying for some days, you’ll probably return often to the souks – and this is a good way of taking them in, singling out a couple of specific crafts or products to see, rather than being swamped by the whole. To get to grips with the general layout, you might find it useful to walk round the whole area once with a guide, but it’s certainly not essential: with a reasonable map, you can quite easily navigate the souks on your own, and besides, getting a little bit lost is all part of the fun.
The most interesting times to visit are in the early morning (6.30–8am) and late afternoon, at around 4 to 5pm, when some of the souks auction off goods to local traders. Later in the evening, most of the stalls are closed, but you can wander unharassed to take a look at the elaborate decoration of their doorways and arches; those stalls that stay open, until 7 or 8pm, are often more amenable to bargaining at the end of the day.
The easiest approach to the main souks from the Jemaa el Fna is opposite Rue des Banques (see map), where a lane to the left of the Terrasses de l’Alhambra restaurant leads to Souk Ableuh, dominated by stalls selling olives. Continue through here and you will come out opposite the archway that marks the beginning of Rue Souk Smarine.
Nobody is entirely sure when or how the Jemaa el Fna came into being – nor even what its name means. The usual translation is “assembly of the dead”, a suitably epic title that may refer to the public display here of the heads of rebels and criminals (the Jemaa was a place of execution until well into the nineteenth century). The name might alternatively mean “the mosque of nothing” (Jemaa means both “mosque” and “assembly” – interchangeable terms in Islamic society), recalling an abandoned Saadian plan to build a new grand mosque on this site.
Either way, as an open area between the original kasbah and the souks, the square has probably played its present role since the city’s earliest days. It has often been the focal point for rioting and the authorities have plotted before now to close it down and move its activities outside the city walls. This happened briefly after independence in 1956, when the government built a corn market on part of the square and tried to turn the rest into a car park, but the plan lasted barely a year. Tourism was falling off and it was clearly an unpopular move. As novelist Paul Bowles observed, without the Jemaa, Marrakesh would be just another Moroccan city.
Even if you don’t eat at them, at some stage you should at least wander down the makeshift lane of food stalls on the Jemaa el Fna, which look great in the evening, lit by lanterns. As well as couscous and pastilla, there are spicy merguez sausages, harira soup, salads, fried fish, or, for the more adventurous, stewed snails (over towards the eastern side of the square), and sheep’s heads complete with eyes. To partake, just take a seat on one of the benches, ask the price of a plate of food and order all you like. It’s probably worth avoiding places that try to hustle you, and it’s always wise to check the price of a dish before you order, or you’re likely to be overcharged. Stalls patronized by Moroccans are invariably better than those whose only customers are tourists. If you want a soft drink or mineral water with your meal, the stallholders will send a boy to get it for you. On the southern edge of the food stalls, a row of vendors sell a hot, spicy galangal drink (khoudenjal), said to be an aphrodisiac, and usually taken with a portion of nutty cake. Orange and grapefruit juice stalls line both sides of the food stall area at all hours of the day, but check the price first, and insist on having the juice pressed in front of you – if they pull out a bottle of ready-pressed juice, it’ll most likely be watered down, and quite possibly mixed with squash.
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.
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.
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.
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.
There was probably a burial ground behind the royal palace before the Saadian period, but the earliest tomb here dates from 1557, and the main structures were built under Sultan Ahmed el Mansour, around the same time as the Ben Youssef Medersa and the El Badi Palace. A few prominent Marrakshis continued to be buried in the mausoleums after Saadian times: the last, in 1792, was the “mad sultan”, Moulay Yazid, whose 22-month reign was one of the most violent and sadistic in the nation’s history. Named as the successor to Sidi Mohammed, Moulay Yazid threw himself into a series of revolts against his father, waged an inconclusive war with Spain, and brutally suppressed a Marrakesh-based rebellion in support of his brother. A massacre followed his capture of the city, though he had little time to celebrate his victory – a bullet in the head during a rebel counterattack killed him soon after.
The tombs escaped plundering by the rapacious Alaouite sultan Moulay Ismail, probably because he feared bad luck if he desecrated them. Instead, he blocked all access bar an obscure entrance from the Kasbah Mosque. The tombs lay half-ruined and half-forgotten until they were rediscovered by a French aerial survey in 1917, and a passageway was built to give access to them.
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 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.
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 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 absence of architectural features on the Jemaa el Fna serves to emphasize the drama of the nearby Koutoubia Minaret. Nearly 70m high and visible for miles on a clear morning, this is the oldest of the three great Almohad towers (the others are the Hassan Tower in Rabat and the Giralda in Seville) and the most complete. Its pleasing proportions – a 1:5 ratio of width to height – established the classic Moroccan design.
Completed under Sultan Yacoub el Mansour (1184–99), work on the minaret probably began shortly after the Almohad conquest of the city, around 1150. It displays many of the features that were to become widespread in Moroccan architecture – the wide band of ceramic inlay near the top, the pyramid-shaped, castellated merlons (battlements) rising above it, the use of darj w ktaf (“cheek and shoulder”) and other motifs – and it also established the alternation of patterning on different faces. Here, the top floor is similar on each of the sides but the lower two are almost eccentric in their variety. The semicircle of small lobed arches on the middle niche of the southeast face was to become the dominant decorative feature of Almohad gates. The three great copper balls at the top are the subject of numerous legends, mostly of supernatural interventions to keep away thieves. They are thought to have originally been made of gold, the gift of the wife of Yacoub el Mansour, presented as penance for breaking her fast for three hours during Ramadan.
Close to the arches, the stones of the main body of the tower become slightly smaller, which seems odd today, but not originally, when the whole minaret was covered with plaster and painted, like that of the Kasbah Mosque. There was talk about restoring this on the Koutoubia back in 2000, but the authorities settled for a straight clean-up – to stunning effect, especially when it’s floodlit at night. At the same time, archeologists excavated the original mosque, which predates the tower, confirming that it had had to be rebuilt to correct its alignment with Mecca.
Marrakesh’s Ville Nouvelle radiates out from Guéliz, its commercial centre. Though it’s hardly chock-a-block with attractions, it does have one must-see: the Majorelle Garden. South of Guéliz, the Hivernage district, built as a garden suburb, is where most of the city’s newer tourist hotels are located. Further afield, on the northeastern edge of town, is Marrakesh’s palmery.
The heart of modern Marrakesh, Guéliz has a certain buzz that the sleepy old Medina rather lacks. Its main thoroughfare, Avenue Mohammed V, runs all the way down to the Koutoubia, and it’s on and around this boulevard that you’ll find the city’s main concentration of upmarket shops, restaurants and smart pavement cafés. Its junctions form the Ville Nouvelle’s main centres of activity: Place de la Liberté, with its modern fountain; Place 16 Novembre, by the main post office; and Place Abdelmoumen Ben Ali, epicentre of Marrakesh’s modern shopping zone. Looking back along Avenue Mohammed V from Guéliz to the Medina, on a clear day at least, you should see the Koutoubia rising in the distance, with the Atlas mountains behind.
The Majorelle Garden, or Jardin Bou Saf, is a meticulously planned twelve-acre botanical garden, created in the 1920s and 1930s by French painter Jacques Majorelle (1886–1962), and subsequently owned by fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent. When Yves Saint Laurent died in 2008, his ashes were scattered in the garden, which contains a memorial to him, while the street the entrance is in was renamed after him.
The feeling of tranquillity in the garden is enhanced by verdant groves of bamboo, dwarf palm and agave, the cactus garden and lily-covered pools. The Art Deco pavilion at the heart of the garden is painted in a striking cobalt blue – the colour of French workmen’s overalls, so Majorelle claimed, though it seems to have improved in the Moroccan light. This brilliantly offsets both the plants – multicoloured bougainvillea, rows of bright orange nasturtiums and pink geraniums – and also the strong colours of the pergolas and concrete paths – pinks, lemon yellows and apple greens. The enduring sound is the chatter of the common bulbuls, flitting among the leaves of the date palms, and the pools also attract other bird residents such as turtle doves and house buntings. The garden became better known abroad when it was featured by Yves Saint Laurent in a brilliant reproduction at London’s 1997 Chelsea Flower Show. Pierre Bergé and Madison Cox’s Majorelle, A Moroccan Oasis is a superbly photographed coffee table book on the garden, sometimes available at Librairie d’Art.
When leaving the garden, ignore the taxi drivers waiting outside, who run a cartel and will not take you unless you pay well over the odds. The answer is simply to walk down to the main road and hail a cab there.
In Majorelle’s former studio, housed within the pavilion, the Berber Museum kicks off with an exhibition about Morocco’s Berbers, their culture and languages, and where in the country they live, before launching (in the next room) into a display of traditional Berber crafts, including textiles and carpet-making, and showing the tools used in making them, as well as the finished articles. There’s even a beautiful but slightly rickety wooden minbar (mosque pulpit) from the Middle Atlas, decorated with Berber designs. The next room is dedicated to jewellery, all of it silver, as gold is considered unlucky in Berber tradition. The last room contains a display of Berber costumes from different regions of the country.
Top image: Taditional moroccan cafe in Marrakesh © Shutterstock