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The Splendour Of Marrakesh

Article by Habeeb Salloum, Photos: Michael Morcos

Situated in the middle of a fertile plain and incorporating many enclosed and open gardens, Marrakesh is surrounded by huge olive, orange and palm orchards, and is overshadowed by the snow-peaked 4,177 m (13,700 ft) high Djebel Toubkal, the highest mountain in Morocco. One of the most fascinating and mysterious of cities, this ancient metropolis has a fairyland setting. Its splendid pinkish structures, colourfully dressed inhabitants, ageless craftsmen at work, historic remains and its renowned Jamaa el Fna Square complement its location and make it an enchanting town – once visited, never forgotten.

Marrakesh with its glorious past known to many as: ‘Empress of the Sahara’ is one of the country’s four Imperial Capitals. Labelled the ‘Pearl of Morocco’s South’

It was founded in the 11th century, as the capital of this newly established empire by Yusuf ibn Tashfin, the first Almoravide sultan. In the ensuing years, it was enlarged and beautified with fine palaces and mosques by the subsequent Almoravide rulers and those of the Almohade, and Saadian Dynasties. Today, the city with over 1,500,000 inhabitants has expanded until it has become the third largest in Morocco. Yet, it is the vestiges from its illustrious past that still give it a bewitching charm.

The town has spread beyond its ancient walls into a section called Ville Nouvelle where most modern homes, official buildings, businesses and luxury hotels are located. Its wide fruit-laden lemon, orange and palm lined avenues, edged by pink-ochre attractive houses and spacious gardens give it a picturesque and inviting aura. The traditional architectural design, evolved to fit into the modern world, and attractive colour of these structures imbue modern Marrakesh with a breath-taking appeal.

The Medina (the older part of town) with almost 10 km (6mi) of ochre mud walls 10 m (33 ft) high, encircling buildings built from this same mud and pinkish stone has through the ages been known as the ‘Red City’. Within its ramparts, once entered by 12 gates of which 8 remain, are countless historic remains and more colour and excitement than in any other city in the world.

Topping the historic structures inside the Medina is the Koutoubia, a ochre-stone minaret 77 m (253 ft) high which overshadows the city. Its attached 5,200 sq. m (55,568 sq ft) mosque contains 112 columns of brick covered with stucco. The minbar is made from carved cedar wood inlaid with mosaic panels and was brought in the 12th century from Cordova to Marrakesh by the Almoravides when they occupied Muslim Spain. Visitors can only view the mosque from the outside – non-Muslims are not allowed to enter.

Above all, what has made Marrakesh a true tourist mecca is Jamaa el Fna, one of the most famous and liveliest entertainment spots in the world. The central square of the old city, it can hold up to 10,000 and gives Marrakesh its unique character. Once said to have been the place where the sultan hung the heads of his enemies, whence its name ‘Assembly of the Dead’, it is both a market and entertainment centre.

Every day from early morning to long after darkness, Jamaa el Fna is humming with activity. Acrobats, dancers and musicians, fortune-tellers, jugglers, singers, snake charmers and storytellers hold both native and tourist spellbound. Intermixed with the entertainers are food stalls, all types of vendors, and primitive dentists and herb doctors plying their trade. Strolling back and forth between the crowds, gaudily dressed water sellers jingle their brass cups to indicate that they are selling water carried in goatskins strapped to their backs.

From Jamaa el Fna, passages lead to the souks in the old city. Every street and every shop in this medieval part of Marrakesh is filled with a riot of colour, noise and all types of activity. The exotic perfume and spice souks, diffusing heavenly aromas and the colourful dyers and leather markets are worth exploring.

However, the skilled artisans plying their trades are what intrigue the visitors. Potters producing masterpieces from bits of clay; woodworkers creating fine articles with amazing speed; metal craftsmen turning out eye-catching engraved shining plates; and leather workers with hands which have inherited the skills of centuries, manufacturing endless leather products, are like a medieval assembly line in full production.

When visitors tire of Moroccan history, architecture and ancient streets, they can, if they wish, enjoy the activities of the modern world. The newer part of the city, called Gueliz, joined to the old city by the Avenue Muhammad V, has excellent gardens, golf courses, nightclubs, and discos. Most hotels have swimming pools and entertainment and, in the nearby towering hills, one can hunt or mountain-climb.

The most affluent section of the new city is along Muhammad VI Avenue – the longest avenue in Morocco. As we walked on the Avenue our guide quoted more than once these words taken from an English poem but altered somewhat “Let us see the handsome mansions where the wealthy love to stroll and dwell.”

On the other hand, if one wants to savour the best of the rich Moroccan folklore, the time to visit Marrakesh is in June/July. Every year at that time a National Folks Arts Festival is held in the city. Organized amid the ruins of El Badi Palace with its 100 fountains, the festival encompasses the African, Arab and Berber heritage of Morocco.

Based on the traditions of Morocco’s illustrious past, the festival is a live homage to this historic city. No one who attends this fantastic celebration and, at the same time, explores the town, will easily forget the splendour of Marrakesh that has inspired writers and poets throughout the centuries.