Long ago, in the year 1062 to be exact, a warrior dynasty of nomadic Berber called the Almoravids decided to pitch their desert tents near the foothills of the Atlas Mountains and found the capital of their empire, which they named Marrakesh.
The city became famous between merchants from inside and outside the empire that extended across all North-west Africa and the South of Spain, and soon became one of the major trading centers in the Islamic world of the Middle-Ages.
Today, after surviving famine, droughts, plague, sacks, rebellions, and being under the ruling of Berber, Arabs, and Europeans, Marrakech still preserves that same trading spirit that attracts artisans and dealers from Africa, Middle-East, and India, and lures tourists from all around the world.
Some of those tourists were my friends and I. We arrived at the Marrakech airport, and ten taxi drivers approached us at the same time. This was a fun first impression of Morocco. While each of them yelled they were offering us the best price to ride us to our hostel, they didn’t seem to be competing against each other, for they whispered between them before lowering the prices so everyone could still participate in the bargain.
After a long argument in which we didn’t participate, they decided that we were taking the van, that drove us to the old town, or Medina, as they call them in Morocco.
Like all the medinas of Morocco, this one is fortified and is not accessible by car. The city walls were built by the Almoravids to defend themselves from the Almohad attacks, and they stretch for almost 30 kilometers around the old city. The clay they used to make these walls contains intense orange pigments from the soil that give an orange-pink color to the constructions. For the next centuries, the people of Marrakech used this same clay to build their houses, mosques, and palaces, which at sunset reflect the reddish color that made this old capital be nicknamed the Red City.
Our taxi left us in Bab al Ksour, one of the 20 city gates along the walls, and which apparently is a favorite place to drop off tourists, for there were a few men already lined up to carry our backpacks in one of their wooden wheelbarrows and take us inside the medina.
We finally got to our hostel, Riad Dia Marrakesh, which was colorful, cozy, and clean. It was just 10 dollars per night with breakfast included. They even have a small swimming pool, which is heavenly if outside is 47ºC. At our arrival, they served us Moroccan tea and pastries, and gave us a city map.
Our first adventure was to find out our way inside the medina. The old city is made of narrow alleys, tunnels, and dead end streets. So if you take the wrong turn on the map, you might get lost for a while. Apart from that, It feels as if the people in this city inherited the trading nature of their ancestors, for there’s not a person in Marrakech that doesn’t want to ask you for money after giving you directions. Several times, they said the places we were looking for were closed or surrounded by the police (because surely, the police were looking for us), and they offered us deals to take us to better attractions.
Luckily, we were warned before hand not to fall into the trap. Usually, they tell that to tourists just to tour you around and then take you to a friend’s business, where they get a commission out of it.
We finally found the souks, the famous traditional markets of Marrakesh, and the largest in Morocco. Entering here feels as if we’d gone back in time, when caravans crossed the Sahara Desert or sailors traveled along the Strait of Gibraltar just to make their living out of trading in this same spot.
Though you can no longer find ivory, gold, or precious jewels in the souks, it still has a blend of Berber and Arabic curiosities like metalwork, clothes, scarfs, dyed wool and tapestries. There’s also a lot of food like dried fruits, seeds, and spices; and they even have their black magic souk with magic powders, dried scorpions, snake skins, and other tokens. Some areas of the market smell like spices, some to sweat, some to incense, and some I didn’t even want to know what the smell was.
When you enter a shop in the souks, it’s a tradition that they offer you tea. It’s the way to start negotiations, and that’s how we ended up bargaining with our new friend Mohammed. We spent almost an hour with him, talking about his teapot business, the city, and the market, and at every pause, he offered us more tea and lower prices on his merchandise. In the end, he also gave us a useful tip to survive the market:
If you come in talking in French or English, sellers will automatically know you are rich and will lift the prices for you; so it’s time to get your Spanish, Italian or Portuguese in practice.
My personal advice is that you can win everyone’s friendship over if you learn to say a few phrases in Berber or Arabic. They appreciate the effort and consider you cooler than the other tourist.
Also, learn to bargain and to say no. We saw a lot of tourist buying things just because they felt guilty about rejecting them. Marrakech is a market town, so it’s like a social etiquette to just leave, let the seller chase you, and then bargain. It’s also fun to do, so don’t feel ashamed of doing it.
After visiting the souks, we went to the Koutoubia Mosque. As non-Muslims, we could only see it from outside, but still, we could get close and walk around the plaza that surrounds it with a beautiful rose garden.
The second dynasty that ruled over Marrakech were the Almohads, and when they defeated the Almoravids, they built this mosque to show their supremacy over their enemies in 1157.
Its minaret is 77 meters high. Being the tallest building in the medina, it is forbidden to build taller structures in the area. The turquoise tiles on the top contrast with the orange clay it’s built it, and the legend says the last orb at the top of the spire is made of gold from the jewels of a Sultan’s wife who broke her fast during Ramadan.
The word “Koutoubiyyin” means librarian, and the mosque was named this way because that was the spot where more than a hundred booksellers trade books when Marrakech started to gain popularity.
At the end of the first day, we went to walk around the night market of Jemaa el-Fnaa, the central square of the medina.
During the day, people here sell crafts, orange juice, and water, and it’s almost empty because of the summer heat. But during the night, this place turns into a chaotic market. If you are not used to big crowds, get ready: it’s the busiest square of Africa!
Henna tattoo makers, herbalists, acrobats, storytellers, and fortunetellers arrive first. Then, the plaza crowds with more particular characters: snake charmers, magicians, doctors of traditional medicine, transvestite exotic dancers (as by tradition, women were not allowed to do this), “dentist” that offer to pull out your aching teeth in the spot; teachers sharing their knowledge; people selling monkeys, lizards, marihuana, and other mystical substances; and food stands with traditional dishes from all around Africa.
As cool as all this can look, ask everyone before taking a picture of them. Women feel very uncomfortable being photographed and will cover their faces, and men will most surely ask you for money for appearing in your pictures.
The next morning, we went to the Saadian Tombs. In the 13th century, Marrakech stopped being the capital of Morocco and was left to its own luck for many years. The Saadi dynasty were the ones who saved the city from its decline and made it the capital of the country once more. They ruled Morocco for a hundred years, and are famous for defending the country against the Ottomans and defeating the Portuguese after their invasion.
The building is decorated with tiles and carved cedar, and contains 66 marble royal tombs from the 16th and 17th centuries. Outside, the graves of servants and guards, all point towards the Mecca.
After having a walk around the Kasbah quarter, with more artisanal shops, we took a calèche, (a fancy carriage pulled by horses) to New City.
In 1912, Morocco became a French protectorate, and this new part of Marrakesh has the blending of Arabic, North African, and art deco architectures all together in its buildings.
The best example of this is the Majorelle Garden, built by the artist Jacques Majorelle, who was also a botanist, and invented the blue shade (so he said) that he used to paint the house. The garden has dozens of different types of birds and different species of cacti. The house is open to the public now, and contains the Islamic Art Museum. It was later owned by Yves Saint-Laurent, who’s ashes were scattered in the garden.
All the facades of the buildings in the new city have to be painted with the same color of the clay that the medina was built, so the city blends perfectly with the red desert around it.
We went back to Jemaa el-Fnaa because, from the places they recommended us to go at night, this one kept being the most mystical of all. We saw an exotic dancer show and were invited to drink tea while listening to a storyteller in Berber. The narrator didn’t care that we didn’t understand a thing, and kept addressing us during his story. In the end, we became the entertainment of the show.
Marrakech is the fourth largest city in Morocco, after Casablanca, Rabat, and Tanger; and for me, the most beautiful one (though I haven’t been to Casablanca yet ☹).
It’s the exact place where the Arab world of North Africa blends with the Sub-Saharan African cultures, and though modernity reached it a long time ago, the spirit of the city remains in the past. Maybe that’s the reason the Rolling Stones, the Beatles, and other hippies at the time, considered it a paradise and inspiration for their music.