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Marrakesh – “Morocco City”, as early foreign travellers called it – has always been something of a marketplace where tribesmen and Berber villagers bring their goods, spend their money and find entertainment. At its heart is the Jemaa el Fna, an open space in the centre of the city, and the stage for a long-established ritual in which shifting circles of onlookers gather round groups of acrobats, drummers, pipe musicians, dancers, storytellers, comedians and fairground acts.
The city’s architectural attractions are no less compelling: the magnificent ruin of the El Badi Palace, the delicate carving of the Saadian Tombs and, above all, the Koutoubia Minaret, the most perfect Islamic monument in North Africa.
It won’t take you long to see why Marrakesh is called the Red City. The natural red ochre pigment that bedecks its walls and buildings can at times seem dominant, but there’s no shortage of other colours. Like all Moroccan cities, it’s a town of two halves: the ancient walled Medina, founded by Sultan Youssef Ben Tachfine in the Middle Ages, and the colonial Ville Nouvelle, built by the French in the mid-twentieth century. Each has its own delights – the Medina with its ancient palaces and mansions, labyrinthine souks and deeply traditional way of life, and the Ville Nouvelle with its pavement cafés, trendy boutiques, gardens and boulevards.
Marrakesh has become Morocco’s capital of chic, attracting the rich and famous from Europe and beyond. Though the vast majority of its residents are poor by any European standard, an increasing number of wealthy foreigners are taking up residence and their influence on the tourist experience is evident.
Marrakesh has Berber rather than Arab origins, having developed as the metropolis of Atlas tribes. Once upon a time, it was the entrepôt for goods – slaves, gold, ivory and even “Morocco” leather – brought by caravan from the ancient empires of Mali and Songhay via their great desert port of Timbuktu. All of these strands of commerce and population shaped the city’s souks and its way of life, and even today, in the crowds and performers of the Jemaa el Fna, the nomadic and West African influence can still seem quite distinct.
Despite its size and the maze of its souks, Marrakesh is not too hard to navigate. The broad, open space of the Jemaa el Fna is at the heart of the Medina, with the main souks to its north, and most of the main sights within easy walking distance. Just west of the Jemaa el Fna is the unmistakable landmark of the KoutoubiaMinaret, and from here, the city’s main artery, Avenue Mohammed V, leads out through the Medina walls at Bab Nkob and up the length of Guéliz, the downtown area of the Ville Nouvelle. You might want to consider hiring a guide to explore the Medina, but given a decent map, it really isn’t necessary.
Marrakesh was founded near the beginning of Almoravid rule, by the first Almoravid dynasty ruler, Youssef Ben Tachfine, around 1062–70. It must at first have taken the form of a camp and market with a ksour, or fortified town, gradually developing round it. The first seven-kilometre circuit of walls was raised in 1126–27, replacing an earlier stockade of thorn bushes. These, many times rebuilt, are essentially the city’s present walls – made of tabia, the red mud of the plains, mixed and strengthened with lime.
Of the rest of the Almoravids’ building works, hardly a trace remains. The dynasty that replaced them – the Almohads – sacked the city for three days after taking possession of it in 1147, but they kept it as their empire’s capital.
With the 1184 accession to the throne of the third Almohad sultan, Yacoub el Mansour, the city entered its greatest period. Kissarias were constructed for the sale and storage of Italian and Oriental cloth, a new kasbah was begun, and a succession of poets and scholars arrived at the court. Mansour’s reign also saw the construction of the great Koutoubia Mosque and minaret.
By the 1220s, the empire was beginning to fragment amid a series of factional civil wars, and Marrakesh fell into the familiar pattern of pillage, ruination and rebuilding. In 1269, it lost its status as capital when the Fez-based Merenids took power, though in 1374–86 it did form the basis of a breakaway state under the Merenid pretender Abderrahman Ibn Taflusin.
Taking Marrakesh, then devastated by famine, in 1521, the Saadians provided a last burst of imperial splendour. Their dynasty’s greatest figure, Ahmed el Mansour, having invaded Mali and seized control of the most lucrative caravan routes in Africa, had the El Badi Palace – Marrakesh’s largest and greatest building project – constructed from the proceeds of this new wealth, and the dynasty also of course bequeathed to Marrakesh their wonderful mausoleum, the Saadian Tombs.
Under the Alaouites Marrakesh lost its status as capital to Meknes, but remained an important imperial city, and the need to maintain a southern base against the tribes ensured the regular presence of its sultans. But from the seventeenth to the nineteenth century, it shrank back from its medieval walls and lost much of its former trade.
During the last decades prior to the Protectorate, the city’s fortunes revived somewhat as it enjoyed a return to favour with the Shereefian court. Moulay Hassan (1873–94) and Moulay Abd el Aziz (1894–1908) both ran their governments from here in a bizarre closing epoch of the old ways, accompanied by a final bout of frantic palace building. On the arrival of the French, Marrakesh gave rise to a short-lived pretender, the religious leader El Hiba, and for most of the colonial period it was run as a virtual fiefdom of its pasha, T’hami el Glaoui – the most powerful, autocratic and extraordinary character of his age.
Since independence, the city has undergone considerable change, with rural emigration from the Atlas and beyond, new methods of cultivation on the Haouz plain and the development of a sizeable tourist industry. After Casablanca, it’s Morocco’s second largest city, with slightly over a million inhabitants, and its population continues to rise. It has a thriving industrial area and is the most important market and administrative centre of southern Morocco.