Monday, June 30, 2014


The Audience Pavilion at the Badi Palace.
Before traveling to Barcelona last month, I stopped in Marrakech, Morocco for a few days to explore a city which I expected would be completely unlike everywhere I had ever been before. Despite being 1,200 years younger than Barcelona (which shows little sign of its age), I expected Marrakech would feel old, almost like a place you would find in some fairy tale, complete with old ruins, sketchy back alleys, snake charmers and the like. And I was pretty much right. The place feels ancient, like it's stuck in time somehow and that is both wonderful and a little scary. The difference between Barcelona, founded around 218 B.C. by the Romans, and Marrakech, founded 12 centuries later, was striking.

Walking around Barcelona is just like walking around any city in the United States or western Europe. Barcelona's streets are paved and generally organized on a grid (well other than in the old Barri Gotic); there are plentiful ATMs; and stores like Hermes and Louis Vuitton occupy storefronts in ten to 12 story buildings. The primary methods of getting anywhere are by car or bus, on the underground Metro train system or by walking.

Marrakech, on the other hand and as I expected, does not look like any city I have ever been to, with the possible exception of Tijuana, Mexico. But then even not. The streets are not gridded or even paved in some spots, ATMs are difficult to find and the stores seemingly have no names whatsoever. The primary methods of getting around the city are by scooter or motorcycle, on a donkey (or a cart pulled by one) or by walking. Walking, it seems, always works. Now admittedly, I spent most all of my three days in Marrakech inside the medina, or old city, but I spent enough time outside the walls of the medina to get a good idea that things work pretty much the same outside the medina wall as they do inside the wall. Although there may be fewer donkeys.

In a city that feels as old as Marrakech, I naturally wanted to seek out some sites where I could understand the history of the place. And while I wouldn't say it's easy to find anything in Marrakech because it proved very easy to get lost there, understanding Marrakech through its historical sites is a relatively simple exercise if you possess a good sense of direction and a really detailed map or if you are willing to trust (and pay) the locals with pointing you in the right direction. Be careful when operating on foot off a hotel-provided map and watch where other tourists are walking from (trust me, they are generally very easy to spot) when trying to find out of the way places. Keep plenty of dirhams handy if you plan on getting lost, especially if you plan on asking for directions.

Big picture-wise, the history of Marrakech can be broken down into two periods: the Berber dynasties and the Sharifian or arab dynasties. There were some years under the (likely involuntary) protection of France in the 20th century but the Berbers and the Sharifians pretty much controlled the city for its entire history. Now that's not to say that there were just one group of Berbers and one group of arabs holding the city for 1,000 years; there weren't. The actual history was way more complex. But despite the shifting tides of rule throughout its history and the city falling in and out of favor of whomever was in charge of the country, there is enough preserved through the years in Marrakech to stitch a pretty good idea of the history of the place together by visiting sites in one or two days.

The origin of Marrakech can be traced back to the Almoravids in the second half of the eleventh century. The exact date of the founding is either lost or in debate but it seems the 50 year period between 1050 and 1100 is the right ballpark with 1071 being the most agreed upon year. The Almoravids were Berbers, the indigenous peoples from the area currently defined as Morocco, and their rule over the city constituted the first of the Berber dynasties. They managed to develop and hold on to Marrakech for only 70 or so years before surrendering the city to the Almohids in 1147 who in turn surrendered it to the Mereneids in 1269. Both the Almohads and Merinids were also Berbers. Got all that? Good! It won't be important for the rest of this blog post.

The medina wall and the Bab er Raha gate.
Most of the historical sites in Marrakech are set aside and preserved. But the earliest Berber sites, meaning the souks and the main square in the medina, Jemma El Fna, are as alive today as they were when they were founded almost 1,000 years ago. What is being sold in the souks (I'm thinking the orange-ish Reggie Miller Indiana Pacers number 31 jersey among other things here) may have changed a lot over the centuries and the people buying may be way different, but the basic trade which takes place in the various stalls is essentially the same. I'll bet the spices and olives sold hundreds of years ago aren't much different than those same goods being sold today.

The souks and Jemma El Fna have survived very much intact from the times of the Berber Dynasties but they are not the only things which still stand from the rule of Marrakech's founders. The Berbers were the first people to build Mosques in Marrakech mere decades after the founding of the city itself. Looking out across the city today, one can see mosques dotting the horizon near and far and during the five times daily azhan (or call to prayer) and the overlapping call from the various muezzins makes it obvious that mosques in the city are plentiful.

The Koutoubia Mosque.
The two oldest mosques in Marrakech, the Koutoubia Mosque and the Ben Youssef Mosque, were both built during the 1100s and have remained functional and in place through to today. I did not have time to visit the Ben Youssef Mosque while in town (generally speaking I needed a day or two more in Marrakech) but I did manage to stroll around the Koutoubia Mosque which is right off Jemma El Fna just to the south and west by about a quarter of a mile. Despite the distance, it is the most prominent building in the city when standing in the square. Its minaret is by far the tallest structure visible from the square and it projects a presence on the place despite the distance.

The mosque is not accessible to non-muslims so I had to content myself with walking around the building and admiring the place from the outside. There is a garden to the south and west which provides some shade and some great vantage points to view the minaret. The current mosque, built from 1147 to 1158 is actually not the original Koutoubia Mosque. The original structure was halted halfway through construction when it was determined that the orientation of the building was not quite precise enough relative to Mecca. How they figured this out in the twelfth century with Mecca located 4,000 miles away is beyond me. Nonetheless, construction was halted and the whole place was started anew.

The Koutoubia minaret is a thing to behold. There is about every type of motif and device ever used in Islamic architecture scattered up throughout its height. It is remarkably well preserved and does not at all look like it is 850 years old. I guess the desert climate has something to do with that. Visiting the outside of the mosque is a great activity to do just before dusk. It's not too hot at that time and there are plenty of people around. Crossing the street can be an adventure. Most people just sort of walk out into traffic whether or not there are cars and scooters coming (and there are ALWAYS scooters coming). We opted to follow the locals, hoping if something bad happened at least they'd get it first.

The other remnant of the Berber Dynasties is all around the medina. The medina wall was built between 1126 and 1127, about 50 years after the founding of the city and today the wall is completely intact. The wall is about 20 feet high and stretches just over 11 miles around the center of the city. The wall has a series of gates (called Babs) which allow pedestrian and vehicular traffic to enter the medina. The walls of course are largely vestigial now; they haven't had to keep invaders out for centuries. But it's cool that they are still there and complete as they were during the time of the Berbers. It's not difficult to imagine a traveler in the 13th century approaching the city walls in search of trade or shelter. Today, the only thing the walls shelter is thousands of swallows. The walls are perforated with the nests of these birds.

The Berber Dynasties left sites behind that define the fabric of Marrakech. They surround the medina and form and support the basis of trade and worship in the city. They are more responsible for the way Marrakech operates today despite not having held the city for almost 500 years. The historical sites from the Sharifian Dynasties are far more local but no less interesting and one of my favorite sites we visited in Marrakech was built during the first Sharifian Dynasty of the Saadians. It is perhaps appropriate, however, that the historical sites within Marrakech after the Berbers were defeated tell a disjointed story, reflecting the ambivalent attitude of the Sharifians towards the city. Some rulers clearly made Marrakech a priority; others clearly plundered it to take its riches elsewhere.

The Badi Palace, seen from the second floor terrace.
In 1525, the Saadians conquered Marrakech. The Saadians were the first of the Sharifian dynasties to control Marrakech, arab peoples who had moved into the Marrakech area from the east and who claimed to be descended directly from the prophet Mohammed himself. The Saadians made Marrakech the capital of their empire after they conquered the city of Fes about 300 miles to the northeast in 1549. In 1669 the Saadian rule in Marrakech was ended by the Alouites (also arabs). The current king of Morocco is descended from the Alouites who conquered the city in that year. While the Berbers and the Saadians pretty much maintained Marrakech as the most important city in their empire, the Alouites were less consistent in their treatment of the city. For a few hundred years of rule by the Alouites, the cities of Meknes and Fes were treated as far more important than Marrakech. This story can be seen in historical sites still remaining in the city today.

The most important Saadian ruler (in terms of Marrakech's built history) was sultan Ahmad al-Mansur. Upon his ascension to the throne, al-Mansur commissioned a lavish palace in the medina of Marrakech called the Badi Palace and when he left this world, he made sure he was well remembered with the construction of a series of tombs holding family members and servants just to the west of the palace he built for himself. The tombs, now known as the Saadian Tombs, and the palace are both preserved and accessible today and are worth the hour or two visit to understand a little bit about the history of Marrakech.

The Badi Palace Audience Pavilion looking north. Look closely and you can see a stork's nest through the arch.
The Badi Palace was my favorite site to visit in Marrakech. The palace is mostly a ruin now, the victim of one of the later Sharifian kings who needed the luxurious materials for palace construction at Meknes, but the original perimeter wall is intact and you can get a good sense of the scale and importance of what the place must have been like in the late 16th century. The palace is organized around a central court with multiple water pools and two opposing structures facing each other across the central pool. The Crystal Pavilion at the east end of the pool is long since gone; the Audience Pavilion at the opposite west end, where the sultan received visitors, is still largely intact.

There are a series of buildings along the north and south walls of the courtyard that served the main function of the palace. Today, these buildings are ruins or serve as museum spaces. The structure at the northeast corner of the palace has an accessible second level from which you can understand the general organization of the palace pretty well. The second level outdoor spaces also allow excellent views of the many many storks which have built nests on the palace wall and on roofs of the surrounding buildings.

The place is literally a ruin, but an intact one, so don't expect to see a lot of decorative tile work or ornamentation that you might expect when visiting an Islamic palace. All the good stuff was shipped off to decorate the palace at Meknes towards the end of the 17th century. It's also quite difficult to understand the function of a lot of the spaces in the palace because there is not a lot of interpretive signage (although there was way more here than at other sites). Off in a room on the south side of the property is the original minbar, or imam's pulpit, from the Koutoubia Mosque. While not that impressive in and of itself, the minbar does provide a glimpse into the quality of muslim craftsmanship in the 1100s. Admission to the minbar will cost you an additional 10 dirhams over and above the 10 dirhams required to get into the palace, but since 10 dirhams is about $1.25, it was worth the extra money to see everything here.

The courtyard of the Saadian Tombs.
If al-Mansur knew his palace was in ruins today, I expect he might be upset at what his successors did to the property he'd spent so much time developing. His tomb, however, is an entirely different story. This place is still largely intact, including all the decorative stonework and tile work, because one of al-Mansur's successor sultans didn't want anyone to remember al-Mansur and so he blocked up any access to the tombs in later years. Eventually the place was forgotten entirely. So what remains today is a fairly complete picture of what the place must have looked like shortly after it was completed. The tombs sit in a courtyard space with three main rooms which hold members of al-Mansur's family. The spaces in between the rooms contain tombs of servants beneath now centuries old tile work.

The Saadian Tombs are not exactly easy to find. We managed to make it to the Moulay al Yazid Mosque, which is literally right next to the tombs, before getting totally stumped. Only when someone much more astute than me noticed some white people coming out of an alley did we figure the tombs might be nearby. It was either that or they were doing something illicit. Fortunately for us we saw the ticket booth when we turned the corner and were able to visit al-Mansur's legacy.

The interior of the Saadian Tombs.
The tombs are accessed via a passageway just a few feet wide which takes three or four alternating turns before finally leading you out into the courtyard. Just where al-Mansur himself is buried is impossible to tell without some other sort of knowledge because there is absolutely no signage whatsoever inside the property; I wonder if they do this to keep the local official and unofficial guide business intact. The courtyard is not small so it is honestly difficult for me to see how it was lost for centuries but indeed that appears to be the case. The tombs were only discovered in aerial reconnaissance photographs in 1917. I guess we have a jealous sultan to thank for the preservation of the site. He ensured that al-Mansur's legacy would be remembered forever, even though his intent was the exact opposite. Visiting the tombs today won't take long but it's worth the standard 10 dirham entrance price.

Between 1603, when sultan Ahmad al-Mansur died, to today Marrakech spent about 99 years as the capital city of whatever dynasty ruled Morocco. That's not very long considering the 411 years in that span. So it should come as no surprise that there are few historically significant sites in the city after the Saadians lost control of the city in 1669. But there is one, the Bahia Palace (yes, there is a Badi Palace and a Bahia Palace in Marrakech like three blocks from each other), and it's just east of the two al-Mansur contributions to the city's history.

The Bahia Palace was built by King Mohammed IV in the 1860s for a grand vizier (advisor), and former slave (not sure how that worked exactly) to the king. I know this already sounds very sketchy but it's basically another property in the south part of the medina that costs 10 dirhams to enter so you can understand a little more about Marrakech's history. I honestly got very little out of my trip to the Bahia Palace, primarily because there is absolutely no signage to describe the property whosoever. The Badi Palace had enough to get a rudimentary understanding of what happened there and the Saadian Tombs were pretty much easy to figure out (a bunch of dead people were buried there) but a little description would have really helped at the Bahia Palace.

The Bahia Palace. Wishing I hired a guide like the one in this picture.
Don't get me wrong, the place is interesting and totally worth a buck twenty-five but I could have used a little context. The descriptions I read before visiting indicated there was a harem room which I was looking forward to seeing in a very uncharacteristically me way. I could have walked right through it and would never have known. In fact, I probably did and still don't know.

I wrote earlier in this post that I would have liked another day or two in Marrakech and I totally believe that. I missed three significant historical sites in the city in the Menara Gardens, the tanneries and the Ben Youssef Mosque and I regret traveling all the way to Morocco and missing these places. Part of that was my own choice. After touring the Saadian Tombs, the Badi Palace and the Bahia Palace in the morning and early afternoon of our last day in town, we opted to head beyond the medina wall to the Jardin Majorelle, a property formerly owned by Yves Saint Laurent northwest of the medina. In addition to being very picturesque, the gardens feature a Berber museum that describes the customs, lifestyle and artifacts of the Berber culture (the dental tongs were especially chilling). I thought that would tie well to the Berber parts of the city's history which it did.

Before traveling to Marrakech, I debated a few other cities in Morocco. My initial plan was to spend a day in Tangier but after reading about the place I decided it would be too much like a Mexican border town. From there my attention turned to Casablanca and Fes (Rabat was never really an option) but it seemed to me like Marrakech offered a unique balance between authenticity and history. Ultimately based on talking to people I met in Marrakech (maybe biased I know), I think I was right. I think I know a lot more about a part of the world that I knew little about and I'm convinced immersing myself in the history of Marrakech was the right thing to do.

The Berber Museum at the Jardin Majorelle. Take a taxi here please. If looks easy to find on a map; it's not.

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