Imperial City Marrakesh, the Fabulous, the Glorious, is unofficial capital of the south and justly known as one of the most legendary cities in the world. It has a different atmosphere from the other cities, more African, more Berber, more Moroccan, with a kaleidoscopic beauty and wildness that not only draws people from the surrounding plains and the desert but thousands from all over, backpackers, poets, celebrities and everyday tourists all of whom have succumbed to its spell. Most find what they seek, the hint of adventure, excitement, peace, certainly the sheer joy of different races, age groups, languages, rich and poor, mixing with ease in a magic environment. It works the miracle of being a city thronged by people, yet remaining a sun- blessed oasis of vibrant colour, birdsong, leafy surroundings and fragrant aromas.
From the Saharan tents of desert warriors sprung the garden city founded in 1062. Today it is centered in an oasis, 13,000 hectares of palms, the enchanting Palmeraie, that tradition claims is the legacy of the date-eating soldiers who first garrisoned there.
The superb Medina, now listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site, is girdled by seven miles of rose pink ramparts more than 1,000 years old, punctuated by 200 towers and ten gates through which Moorish troops once galloped to conquer Spain. The imperial city of the Almoravid and Almohad sultans, in their time, acknowledged leaders of Western Islam, has a backdrop that seems designed by a celestial artist, the snow-capped mountains of the Atlas, soaring to 13,000 ft. If Fez seems to guard the inner nature of Morocco, Marrakesh presents its extrovert face.
Marrakesh understandably draws the major portion of tourists but it is also a place of commerce and entertainment for Berbers from the mountains, Blue men from the desert and the dark-skinned Senegalese from beyond. Even the name Morocco is derived from Marrakesh.
At the centre of the Medina is a stunning maze of covered souks, some of the best in Morocco, selling everything from cheaper wares to the finest silks, textiles, spices, herbs and perfumes and the exquisite works of master craftsmen of jewellery, silver and gold, leather, wood and metals.
Nothing, however, can cap the impression made by the huge Djemma el Fna, ‘Assembly of the Dead’ a square so-called because the heads of conspirators were once displayed there. Reputedly the largest in Africa, it has drawn visitors for centuries.
Almost an amphitheatre, visited for centuries, you can have a balcony seat in one of the rooftop cafes or join the Joyful melee below for what just has to be the greatest show on earth. In action 24 hours a day, busiest time is night as row after row of food stalls set up, cooking mouth-watering foods. Fires burn, kerosene lanterns glow, drums throb, pipes sound as snake charmers make cobras sway, world-famed Berber acrobats hurl through the air and crowds watch dancers and gather in circles round fire-eaters and traditional storytellers, magic potion doctors and magicians. Berber acrobats are probably the best in the world and can be found in the circuses of many lands. The intricate pyramid formations they swiftly form are thought to have their origins in the warrior past when they were human bridges to storm enemy walls.
In corners, young backpackers add to the rich atmosphere, strumming guitars with the music of their own lands.
Nearby, commanding all this with elegance is the famed Koutoubia Mosque whose beautifully-proportioned minaret, 70 metres high, has been the main landmark of Marrakesh for 800 years. Built by the Almohads in the late 12th century, it features the oldest and best preserved of their three most famous minarets –the others are the Tour Hassan in Rabat and the Giralda in Seville.
A graceful and comfortable way to view Marrakesh are the calleches, the elegant horse-drawn carriages that add an unexpected touch of old Vienna to this amazing city.
The best-known of the palaces in Marrakesh is the Palais el-Badi, built by al-Mansour between 1578 and 1602. Nicknamed “The Incomparable”, it included marble from Italy and India.
Still imposing, it is, however, largely a ruin, being stripped of Materials by Moulay Ismail in 1696 to build his new capital in Meknes. El Badi is the grand setting for the annual Folklore Festival usually held in June.
Superb craftsmanship and evidence of opulence is still evident in the Saadian tombs where sixty-six Saadians including al-Mansour are interred with another 100 buried outside the two main structures.
The Bahia Palace
Located next to the Jewish quarter in Marrakech, the Bahia Palace (“the Brilliant”) was built in 19th century with the intention to be one of the greatest palace of its time, using the most sophisticated architecture of that era in the country to compete with the grand achievements of the other countries. The palace was done in Moroccan style inspired from Islamic art. The palace has two acres (8000 m2) of garden with the rooms around the courtyard.
The Bahia Palace was built in 1860’s as a principal residence of Si Moussa, grand vizier of the sultan Muhammad IV and Hassan I and named after his favourite wife, Bahia. The palace has vast courts decorated in different ways, surrounded by rooms intended for the concubines.
By the end of 19th century, a black slave, Abu Ahmed rose to power and wealth and continued to build the magnificent Bahia Palace by bringing the master craftsmen from the spiritual city Fes.
Madrassat Ben Youssef
The Ben Youssef Madrassat, the largest of its kind in all kingdom, it was completed by Saadian Abdallah al-Ghalib around 1564/65. Named after the sultan Ali Ben Youssef, it became a significant coranic university where students from around the world flocked to pour over and interpret ancient texts and was, for more than four centuries, an intellectual university for students with thirst for knowledge in various sciences and, in particular theology. After its closure in 1960, the building was refurbished and reopened to the general public as a historical site in 1982, then it became a private property.
Like the other large cities Marrakesh has its ville nouvelle, the new town. In this area is the ever-popular Jardin Majorelle, once owned by Yves Saint-Laurent. This feast for the eyes was laid out by the French painter Jacques Majorelle who lived here from 1922 to 1962 and included Majorelle’s dazzling blue villa which now houses a museum of Islamic art. This French-style area has two main-sectors, Gueliz and Hivernage. The city’s main cluster of cafes and restaurants are sited around the main thoroughfare, Ave Mohammed V.
With brilliant planning, the old medina and the new city merge imperceptibly, never clashing,
The new town also reflects a dramatic makeover that is happening nationally, striking developments started by the late King Hassan II and continued by his son, King Mohammed VI. Wide new boulevards would not look out of place in Paris, and exciting new hotels and public buildings are erected including cinemas, an opera house and fashionable new shops, augmenting night clubs and a rich array of characterful cafes and restaurants serving European and Moroccan cuisine.
Tracts of road close to the city have been specifically designed to meet the particular demands of the Moroccan Grand Prix. Improved roads are providing safer and speedier links between cities.
Morocco’s most dramatic waterfalls, the Cascades d’Ouzoud, waterfalls of the olives, lie 167 km north east of Marrakesh. They plunge about 100m to natural pools that provide a delightful swim.
From Marrakesh there are trips to Imichil (Atlas Mountain), a remote Berber village 363 km away, famous for its September Moussem. This is a kind of tribal marriage market which should appeal to feminists. The woman gets to choose.