HISTORICAL MARRAKECH

History is not a burden on the memory but an illumination of the soul.

Lord Acton

At the foot of the Atlas mountains lies Marrakech, a unique and spiritual city with huge historical significance, stretching back nearly a thousand years.

There’s more to Marrakesh’s colourful past than the yarns spun by the storytellers in the Djemaa el-Fna square.

Travel beyond the souks to explore and be enriched by Morocco’s most important former Imperial city.

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100% Unadulterated Leather: The Tannery District

A country of great extremes. Here at the not so spiritual side of the culture, is Marrakech at its most medieval – and most pungent – the tannery district. The tanners have been here since the city was founded and their work remains a pre-industrial process, using hundreds of vats full of foul liquids to cure animal hides. The eventual products can be seen and purchased at the leather shops near the gate – and all over the souks, but you may prefer to escape this quarter as quickly as possible and purge yourself at the nearest hammam.

Graver Sites: The Saadian Tombs

Flanking the south side of the Kasbah Mosque, the site of what is possibly Marrakech’s most visited monument, is an ancient walled garden, the use of which far pre-dates the Saadian era. Dotted around the shrubbery are early mosaic graves; the identity of those interred is long lost. Attention instead focuses on the three pavilions built during the reign of Saadian sultan Ahmed El-Mansour.

First on the left is the Prayer Hall, which holds numerous graves, mainly of Alaouite princes from the 18th century. Next to it is the Hall of Twelve Columns, a more ornate affair with three central tombs surrounded by a dozen marble pillars. The tomb in the middle is that of Ahmed El-Mansour, flanked by those of his son and grandson. A third, stand-alone pavilion has ornate Andalucian-style entrance portals.

Where?

Rue de Kasbah, Bab Agnaou. View map

Marrakech’s Most famous Symbol: The Koutoubia Mosque

Visible from near and far, you can circle the minaret of the Koutoubia Mosque (1184 – 1199), Marrakech’s most famous symbol. Built in a traditional Almohad style and topped with four copper globes, the name is derived from the Arabic “al-Koutoubiyyin” for librarian, and often referred to in literature as the “bookseller’s mosque” because sellers of manuscripts in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries laid out books and scripts on stalls in front of the original mosque.

Koutoubia Mosque is most famous for its minaret towers. Although they were originally displeasing to Muslims because they did align with Mecca and thus had to be rebuilt, their new design was so well done that many future mosque designs were modeled after the minaret by architects in the 13th and 14th century. The minaret of the Koutoubia was the model for the minaret of the Giralda mosque in Seville which in its turn has influenced thousands of church towers in Spain and Eastern Europe (the churches on the red square in Moscow), and later for many buildings throughout the United States of America (including the Manhattan Municipal Building and Russia (primarily during the Stalinist era).

The Mosque is surprisingly not as high as it seems (at 77 metres), but thanks to local topography and a local ordinance that forbids any other building in the Medina to be higher than a palm tree, it towers majestically over its surroundings. It’s still an active place of worship, and non-Muslims may not enter. But it’s possible to get a good view of the exterior by walking around either side.

Where?

Djemaa el Fna Square. View map

The Sultan’s Alcazar: The Bahia Palace

The Bahia Palace is both a palace and a set of gardens situated in the Marrakech medina, just along the northern edge of Mellah,
also known as the Jewish Quarter.

The name means “brilliance“. As in other buildings of the period in other countries, it was intended to capture the essence of the Islamic and Moroccan style. There is a 2 acre (8,000 m²) garden with rooms opening onto courtyards.

Set up at the end of 19th century by Si Moussa, grand vizier of the sultan, it was intended to serve the personal uses of the sultan. In fact, the palace also bore the name of one of his wives. His harem was housed here, and it included an enormous court decorated with a central basin with the concubines dwelling in a series of surrounding rooms. The whole complex is quite large, covering eight hectares. It is comprised of a series of walled gardens, pavilions and courtyard structure.

Where?

Place des Ferblantiers. View map

May your Highest Hopes be Exceeded: Learn about Islamic scripture and law at Medersa Ben Youssef

You who enter my door, may your highest hopes be exceeded’ reads the inscription over the entryway to the Ben Youssef Medersa, and after almost six centuries, the blessing still works its charms on visitors. Founded in the 14th century, this Koranic learning centre was once the largest in North Africa, and remains among the most splendid. 

The entrance is via a long, cool passageway leadng to a magnificently serence courtyard with a shallow, water filled basin at its centre.

The medersa’s courtyard is a mind-boggling profusion of Hispano-Moresque ornament: five-colour zellij (mosaic) walls; stucco archways, with Iraqi-style Kufic letters ending in leaves; cedar windows with weather-worn carved vines; and a curved mihrab (eastern-facing niche) of prized, milky-white Italian Carrara marble.

At the far side is the domed prayer hall with the richest of decoration, notably around the mihrab, the arched niche that indicates the direction of Mecca.

Back in the entrance vestibule, passageways and two flights of stairs lead to more than 100 tiny windowless students’ chambers, clustered about small internal light wells.

Where?

Ben Youssef Medersa, Place Ben Youssef. View map

MARRAKECH GALLERY

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