The ancient, beguiling city of Marrakech has long been a must-see for every traveler, often the first stop on a tour of Morocco. The medina or old city is a maze of souqs (markets), riads (traditional homes) and alleyways, while the modern city or ville nouvelle is home to many European ex-pats. Once an imperial capital and long a vibrant, cosmopolitan caravan town, Marrakech boasts beautiful Islamic architecture and a sizeable mellah or Jewish quarter. Be sure to bring a comfortable pair of walking shoes to explore this fascinating city on foot!
The Marrakech medina or old city covers nineteen square kilometers, crowded with souqs selling everything imaginable and twisting lanes leading in all directions. Organized loosely around the central square of Djemaa el-Fna—literally “The Assembly of the Dead,” echoing the plaza’s past as the site of public executions in the eleventh century—the square and surrounding medina were declared a “Masterpiece of World Heritage” by UNESCO in 2001. Be sure to visit in the evening, when storytellers, musicians, and performers come out to dazzle in a nightly carnival.
Many historic mosques, all beautiful examples of various periods of Islamic architecture, lie within the medina. Towering over the Djemaa el-Fna at 253 feet (77 meters) is the Koutoubia Mosque, built during Almohad rule in the early twelfth century and the oldest, most complete structure from this historical period. Constructed with the assistance of Andalusian architects, the Koutoubia (named after the local souq of booksellers or koutoubiyyin) marks the flowering of Moroccan-Andalusian architecture. Although closed to non-Muslims (as are many mosques in Morocco), the grounds are beautiful and open to the public. Nearby, be sure to tour the inside of the Tin Mal Mosque, the prototype for the Koutoubia. Also originally constructed during the period of Almoravid rule is the Ben Youssef Mosque. Be sure not to miss the school or medersa nearby, founded in the fourteenth century and once the largest Quranic learning center in North Africa. Today the site is a marvel of intricate wood carving and decoration, from the cedar cupolas and wooden lattice screens to the profusion of Moroccan-Spanish ornamentation.
Across from the Koutoubia Mosque is the Marrakech Museum, housed in a renovated palace and open to the public since 1997. One wing exhibits contemporary Moroccan art, while another houses traditional textiles, embroidery, and Berber jewelry. A renovated hammam or bath-house hosts temporary exhibitions on a rotating basis.
The old Jewish quarter of Marrakech, the mellah, was established in 1558 under the protection of the Saadi dynasty. Forbidden to own land or run businesses outside the mellah until 1912, the Jewish population of Marrakech consisted primarily of metal workers, sugar traders, financiers, tailors, and jewelers. Although most of the Jewish population has departed for other cities and parts of the world, be sure to visit the Place des Ferblantiers (a fascinating square surrounded by lantern-makers) and the nearby souqs featuring jewelry and spices.
The rulers of the Saadi dynasty are buried in the impressive Saadian Tombs, housing more than sixty individual tombs and more than one hundred gardens. The splendor of many of the tombs remains stunningly intact, with shining marble, glittering gilding, and honeycomb plasterwork. Walled in during the late seventeenth century, the tombs were rediscovered by the French in 1917 as they conducted an early aerial survey of the city.
Marrakech also boasts numerous palaces dating from varying periods of Moroccan history. Be sure to visit the Bahia Palace, originally built for a beloved concubine of Ba’ Ahmed’s harem named “Bahia” in the late nineteenth century. Featuring wonderfully preserved wood carving, geometric painting, and intricate stucco work, the palace provided a lavish setting for parts of the Hollywood film directed by Alfred Hitchcock, The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956). For a striking contrast in terms of historic preservation (or, in this case, lack thereof), venture to the El Badi Palace (also known as the “Badia”), a structure whose history boasts many a looting and sacking. First constructed in 1578 by Sultan Al Mansour Addahbi of the Saadi dynasty, the palace was stripped of its marble and materials in the following century to build a new royal palace at Meknes. Today the only inhabitants are pigeons and storks, although some restoration efforts are currently underway.
Marrakech is also a city of myriad gardens, and not to be missed is the Art Deco splendor of the Majorelle Gardens in the ville nouvelle or new city. Originally built by the French artist, Jacques Majorelle (1886-1942), and later purchased by fashion designed Yves Saint-Laurent (whose ashes are scattered in the gardens), Majorelle boasts beautiful fountains, wildlife, and flora native to North Africa. The Islamic Art Museum there houses textiles, ceramics, and jewelry, as well as Jacques Majorelle’s watercolor paintings. The Menara Gardens contain a giant olive grove covering more than 100 hectares, and a large eleventh-century pool was once a training ground for soldiers to learn how to swim.