We finally visit the last of Morocco’s 4 imperial cities…
Marrakech. The very name of this ancient city speaks of things exotic and exciting. This is the city that gave Morocco its name*, and the country’s #1 tourist destination. If Rabat is the political capital of Morocco, Casablanca its economic and commercial capital, and Fes its intellectual and spiritual heart, then Marrakech is the cultural and tourist capital of Morocco. Some 20 million tourists visit this city every year, with most of them drawn to the medina and its labyrinthian souks. We’re definitely keen to explore those, but for today we thought we’d start by exploring some of Marrakech’s historical sights.
*The Latin name for Marrakech was Maroch, which is how the Kingdom of Morocco got its name.
The history of Marrakech stretches back 1,000 years; the city was founded in 1070 by the Almoravids as the capital of their empire. For 200 years of Almoravid rule Marrakech grew, becoming one of the most important trade cities in the world. Caravans brining gold, ivory, salt and slaves from sub-Saharan Africa and across the desert had to pass through the High Atlas Mountains to reach the coast, and Marrakech lies at the foothills of those huge mountains. Much of the medina in Marrakech dates back to the 11th and 12th centuries, with the red earth used for the building here giving Marakesh its distinctive red color, and its popular appellation Marrakech al Hamra (translation = Marrakech the Red).
Unfortunately the city’s fortunes changed in 1269 when control of the country went to the Marinid Dynasty, who relocated the capital to Fes, leaving Marrakech as a regional capital. Whilst Fes was developed as the country’s premier city, Marrakech continued to function as a trade city. The rivalry between Fes and Marrakech dates back to this era – over the past 1,000 years Morocco has often been fragmented politically, with Fes the capital of the North and Marrakesh the capital of the South. The choice of Rabat as the capital of modern Morocco is in some ways a compromise designed to ensure neither of the two rival cities is dominant over the other.
Like shifting desert sands, Marrakech’s fortunes changed once again, however,in 1525 when the Saadian Dynasty gained control of Morocco. Marrakech was reestablished as the capital and reached new heights of grandeur under the Saadians. A new royal palace (El Badi Palace) was built, with new gardens, barracks and a royal burial site (the Saadian tombs).
El Badi Palace (translation = the incomparable palace) was built in the 16th century and consisted of 360 rooms and a large courtyard garden, all richly decorated with Italian marble and large amounts of gold imported from Sudan. The palace, which took approximately 25 years to construct, was torn apart in the 17th century by the Alaouite Sultan Moulay Ismail, who used the material obtained from El Badi Palace to decorate his own palace in Meknes. Thanks mainly to Moulay Ismail’s plundering, all that remains of the palace today are a few ruins that only hint at the size and grandeur that once was.
The Saadian tombs remain intact, however. This mausoleum contains the tombs of 60 members of the Saadi Dynasty, set in manicured, peaceful gardens near the medina of Marrakech. The mausoleums are beautifully decorated, with intricate stucco and tiled zellij wall designs, and ornately carved cedar wood architraves. After the chaos of down-town Marrakech, we really enjoyed some quiet time exploring the Saadian tombs!
From El Badi Palace and the Saadian Tombs we took a step forward in time and went to see Bahia Palace – a 19th century testament to opulence like nothing we’ve seen in Morocco yet! This palace was built by Grand Vizier Si Moussa, who served the Alalouite Dynasty who have ruled Morocco since 1669. Si Moussa governed Marrakech for the Alaouites* for a time and built himself a grand palace here to accommodate his 4 wives, 24 concubines and many children. The palace had the most amazing painted, inlaid woodwork ceilings and stunningly decorated zellij floors. The quarters of Si Moussas favourite concubine were the most spectacular, with original woven-silk panels, stained-glass windows and ceilings painted with rose bouquets. More examples of marvellous Moroccon art! The thing we were most impressed by was that Si Moussa had 28 ladies in his harem – that’s a lot of nagging for one man to contend with!
*Although they had a residence here, the Alaouites never used Marrakesh as their capital.
On our way from El Badi Palace back to the riad we’re staying in for the next few nights, we walked through the heart of Marrakech’s medina and across the city’s most famous square: Djemaa El Fna. The snake charmers, monkey wranglers, street food stands, hawkers and touters were just setting up when we walked through this afternoon – the “show” reaches its peak when the sun sets (which, we’ve been warned, is also when the pick-pockets and seedier elements emerge!). We’ll be checking that out at some stage over the next few days, but for now the warmth and comfort of our bed beckons… Buonne nuit mes amis!