Our next stop in Morocco was Marrakesh. Founded in 1062, the city quickly grew as a royal city, complete with a palace, a huge mosque and an underground water system. Its defeat by another tribe only served to enhance its elegance and position, as when the new rulers built new monuments such as a kasbah and the beautiful Koutoubia Mosque. It declined between the 14th and 16th centuries, before the wealthy Saddians arrived and renewed and even upgraded the building frenzy. Their contributions included the Saddian Tombs, Ben Youssef Medresa and Palais el-Badi.
Marrakesh suffered another blow in the late 17th century when the Alaouites forsook Marrakesh and made Fes their capital. Its latest rebirth began in the early 20th century when the French stabilized the old quarter and built a new one—Quartier Gueliz—which, along with a jump in Old Quarter tourism, remains the hub of city’s economy.
The Order Underlying the Chaos
The historical area, in which we stayed and to which we dedicated most of our attention, centers on the medina. Given our limited time, we retained a guide, Ahmed, to help us understand the nuances that we would otherwise miss. That he did. Although some of his explanations did drag on, he introduced us to a world of symbolism, nuance and Islamic order that we had not previously imagined. Although we didn’t get to many sights, we did gain some interesting insights, including:
- How mosques and madersa (religious schools) avoid putting congregants and students into uncomfortable positions of deciding how and how much to donate by relying on an endowment model under which nearby shops donate modest portions of their income to supporting local mosques and how crafts guilds (in the form of souks) support the madersa.
- How there is supposed to be a clear division between Islamic and scientific knowledge, with no conflict between them (although he was not able to answer some of our questions as to how this may work in practice, at least to our satisfaction.
- How colors are used to denote where one building ends and the next begins and arches over streets do the same for neighborhoods. And how the same type of color coding and arches (as in white entryways, green doors, green roofs and double arches) allow you to identify buildings that are open to the public, and those that are mosques, shrines and religious memorials.
- How Islamic cities’ early use of underground plumbing, strict burial regulations and use of stone and plaster-based building materials (since wood was so scarce) helped them avoid the plaques and the fires of early European cities, and how their traditional use of triangular, rather than square blocks creates Y-shaped intersections that they claim alleviate traffic jams. (Although this is at least partially attributable to the fact that few cars even venture into old towns and that these cities’ new towns have been designed largely on a grid pattern.)
- How the cities’ narrow, angled streets keep people cooler by helping to reduce exposure to the sun—and how the use of red-shaded colors reduces the intensity of light.
- How the chemicals in the cedar wood that is used so extensively in palace doors and ornamental carvings retard decay and insect damage and how ornamental metal tacks in these doors further retard decay by leeching moisture from the wood.
- How (albeit not exactly why) Islamic law allows you to eat only those forms of cattle with cloved hooves (except for pigs) and forbids the eating of animals that eat flesh and also the selling of animals or products from animals that you can’t eat.
The City and its Sights
Place Jemma el-Fna, has long been the social point, although certainly not the aesthetic focal point of the Old Quarter. In fact, up to the 19th century, it was the site of mass public beheadings—up to 50 in a single day. And as if having to watch this weren’t enough of a warning, the heads were pickled and then hung on city gates. By day, the large, open space serves as a market. At night, it transforms into an outdoor eating and entertainment gallery, with meat grilling, sweets being offered and all types of performers—musicians, acrobats, storytellers, snake charmers, all of whom are in assigned areas, each vying for the attention and especially the money of audiences. We were particularly surprised at the size of ant rapt attention that audiences paid to some of the storytellers. .
We also spent some time viewing, if not exploring, the souks in the 2,500-shop medina. Since we have seen so many medinas already this trip, we focused especially on those souks in which we had not previously seen or spent much time. These included the blacksmith and metal crafts souk (in its very loud and gritty corner of the medina) and those that centered on activities such as the selling of skins (used to make leather) and the drying of freshly dried wool.
And speaking of wool, we became engrossed in watching one craftsman in, of all places, the slipper souk. While most shops in this souk merely resell slippers made in a factory, this man, beginning with a bare cloth shell, meticulously massaged clumps of colored wool with so-called black soap (the paste extracted from the second pressing of olives) into a shape than when dried, become pretty, colorful (not to speak of 100 percent organic) slippers.
Just as interesting we passed an antique shop that was selling contracts—two and three-century-old business and even marriage contracts that were written on round sections of tree branches whose bark had been removed.
However, we spent most of our time exploring some of the city’s most beautiful historic monuments. Among the most interesting of those in and around the medina and Place Jemma el-Fna are:
- Koutoubia Mosque, one of the largest mosques in the world, is not open to non-Muslims. Even so, its most renowned feature—its tall (230 feet), lovely pink stone minaret (the tallest structure in the city)—can be seen from all over the city. The six-story tower has a ramp, rather than stairs, both as a means of easing construction and ongoing access. The prayer hall, which is divided into 16 aisles, can accommodate more than 20,000 worshippers at a time.
- Ben Youssef Medresa is one of the largest and most beautiful medresas, not to speak of Moorish buildings, in the country. Originally built in the 14th century, but rebuilt in the 16th, It has grand bronze doors, a large decorated dome, mosaics and a dramatic white marble courtyard. The medresa is divided among residential, teaching and religious uses. The building’s internal ventilation system reduced the smell associated with lavatories and the the use of plaster at the top of the columns helps cool the air.
- Chrob ou Chouf Fountain, with its zellij tiles, cursive inscriptions and carved cedar awning. More interesting, however, was, as we learned, how the series of city fountains (built in a way that all could be fed by natural hydrologic pressure rather than pumps) all had sections for humans to drink from, for animals, and for washing clothes.
Many of the most spectacular buildings, however, are on the southern end of the old city, where the sultans, their advisors and their families built many of their palaces. These included:
- Palais de la Bahia, the late 19th-century palace of grand viziers that is now open to the public. Although stripped of furnishings, the huge palace, which contains 63 riads (rooms grouped around separate courtyards) has some beautiful courtyards, extraordinary plaster carvings and tile work, and some absolutely magnificent painted wood ceilings.
- Palais el-Badi, which was built in the 16th century by Ahmed el-Mansour, this public section of his palace (the private section was separate), was built to impress foreign dignitaries and ambassadors with his wealth and power. Unfortunately, the palace, which was considered one of the wonders of the Muslim world, was so impressive that Moulay Ismail, the first Alaouite sultan ordered the palace demolished so that it would not draw attention from his own Meknes Palace. Today, there is little left other than the walls, replanted orange gardens and ruins. The closed you can come to experiencing the former grandeur is through a short film that shows the garden and some of the most spectacular rooms as they were supposed to have looked.
- Saddian Tombs, with their elaborate Islamic, rather than more restrained Moorish architecture, have seen their better days. (They are, after all, 400 years old.) Even so, there is still more than enough to see to get an idea as to impressive they once were. While renovation work is now underway, the central mausoleum, which is divided into three rooms, has an unusual interlaced tile pattern, marble columns with elaborately decorated capitals and a magnificent carved cedar, gold-leafed dome
- Kasbah Mosque, the oldest in the city (12th century) of which all we could see is its pretty, ocre-colored brick and stone minaret and the decorative inscriptions along its roofline.
- Bab Agnaou, a decorative monumental gate of brick and carved limestone, is large with some interesting carving in its monochrome face, but appears a bit lonely without its original towers.
- La Mamonia Hotel, although not with the same history as the previously mentioned sites, does have a distinguished pedigree. Build in 1923, it has been the Marrakesh home of heads of state, move stars and royalty and provides its guests with private access to what is supposed to be a beautiful 32-acre garden that was originally designed for the son of a sultan. Unfortunately, our view was limited to the outside, since it is open only to guests over the weekend.
We also walked through the Marrakesh’s Kasbah and Mellah sections. Although both are pretty, the Mellah, which used to be the largest Jewish neighborhood in the country (with 16,000 people) is currently the most interesting. Although the Jews have long-since left the Mellah, the district is undergoing a massive facelift. One street, which houses the spice market, has been totally renovated and is shaded by a pretty lattice roof. The next couple blocks, which are home to dozens of small storefronts, are now in the midst of their own renovation, with streets torn up, uniform doors being installed and stores being refinished.
We also got a nice lesson in spices at one of the shops. We learned how dried cuttlefish can be used to whiten teeth, lallvo stone in softening skin and the amazing power of eucalyptus crystals in opening air passages. We learned and sampled different mixes used in sauces, as meat rubs an in marinades and even learned something of the sources and uses of natural vegetable dyes.
Marrakesh New Town
We short-changed ourselves on time in Marrakesh. That was a pity. Although we did get through the Old Town sights, our brief time driving through and walking on the edge of New Town seemed to have the feel of a comfortable, modern city loaded with parks, interesting neighborhoods and with luck, good restaurants. Unfortunately, we never got a chance to find out.
Eating and Sleeping in Marrakesh
Our hotel in Marrakesh was La Maison Arabe. This beautiful 5 star hotel was in the old medina area. The room was very interesting with a high intrigued over the comfortable bed area. However as this area was taller than the ceiling in the rest of the room meant that part of our non-bedroom space had a huge “tagine” from the unit below ours. It left us with a strange shaped room with limited space. Still, the entire experience was wonderful with a helpful staff.
We ate in 2 places in Marrakesh
- La Maison Arabe. We decided to eat at our own lovely hotel’s Jazz Bar. Not only are its restaurants supposed to be among the best in the city, but the Jazz Bar, in addition to having music, also allowed us select dishes from either of the hotel’s two restaurants (Moroccan and continental). We took advantage of the flexibility by beginning with a seared foie gras with peaches and almonds, seared sea bass with couscous and raisons, and a tagine of lamb braised over coals in a clay pot for several hours). All three were delicious, with lamb, in particularly, having the deepest flavor and richest sauce of the trip.
- La Sultana, where we had our one lunch at a rooftop patio of the beautiful hotel that overlooked the Saddian Tombs and the Kasbah Mosque. Our meal consisted of two dishes: Kefta sliders (slightly overdone, but still juicy and very tasty) and a create-your-own salad that consisted of lettuce, tomato, calamari, chicken, feta cheese, quail eggs and apples—topped with argan oil and balsamic. Also very good.