There are places in the world where simply mentioning their name conjures up an image of romanticism, the exotic, a step into the magic of the imagination. The Taj Mahal, built by the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan in loving memory of his third wife, Mumtaz Mahal; Rome’s Colosseum, the symbol for the ‘Eternal City’ and the civilization of the Imperial Roman Empire; Stonehenge, the world’s most famous prehistoric monument, a sacred site beyond the memory of modern man. Say ‘Marrakech’ and a world of souks, snake-charmers and storytellers, kaftans and colour, tales from the Arabian Nights, the call of the muezzin summoning the faithful to prayer, unfolds like the unrolling of a luxurious Moroccan carpet. “There are certain places on the surface of the earth that possess more magic than others,” said Paul Bowles, the American writer who lived in Morocco for fifty-two years. “And one of those places is Marrakech.”
In the middle of the 11th century Marrakech was nothing more than a kasbah and an encampment surrounded by an embankment protected by thorn bushes, an oasis under the watchful gaze of the snow-capped High Atlas Mountains. It soon became the most important trading settlement for the camel trains carrying their precious cargos of gold, spices, ivory and slaves from Timbuktu. Jmaa el Fna, the ancient heart of the city that still raises the pulse of visitors with its frenetic activity, was central to the Arab slave trade, many of whom would continue onward to Mogador (now Essaouaria), taking a last look at their homeland before the perilous journey to the Americas.
Marrakech grew to be one of the four Imperial cities of Morocco, surrounded by almost 20km of rose-pink walls that subtly change hue as the day progresses, glowing a deep, rich gold in the sunset.
Jmaa el Fna – The Heart of Marrakech
Stand in Jmaa el Fna, ‘the Place of the Dead’, where once the heads of criminals were set on spikes after their execution as a warning to others (although fortunately, these days the plain-clothes Tourism Police are there to keep a watchful eye out), and the most prominent feature is the eight centuries old minaret of the Koutoubia Mosque, at 77 metres (253 ft) tall, the second highest in the Islamic world , and no building in Marrakech is allowed to be higher. In its shadow, alongside the small park that provides a cooling respite from the heat of a summer’s day, green-painted caleches, the horse-drawn carriages with their glowing burnished brass, invite you to take a romantic ride around the city.
By day Jmaa el Fna, or La Place as it’s known to Marrakechis, is a vast market place of ladies decorating hands with intricate designs in henna, snake-oil sellers of powders and potions to heal all ills, itinerant dentists with sets of dentures and piles of teeth on display, fortune tellers, monkey men, who throw their animal on the backs of passers-by and charge for the privilege of having a photo taken, and freshly pressed fruit juice carts. As dusk falls young men trundle across the square to set up portable kitchens with plank benches and tables, and the air is perfumed with the exotic aromas of the world’s largest open air restaurant. Musicians, dancers, boxers inviting all comers soon have their crowd seeking entertainment. Sadly, the famed storytellers of La Place are now long gone, (although many of their stories have been recorded for posterity in Richard Hamilton’s excellent book, The Last Storytellers – Tales from the Heart of Morocco). Start at one side of the square and walk across; the sounds and music blend and change, as if you are tuning a radio deep in the heart of Africa; the clashing cymbals of the Gnaoua musicians, wail of the snake charmer’s pipe, drums and gimbri (an instrument that sounds link a banjo) of the girly-boy dancer groups, modern Maroc-rock from the CD stalls, hawkers and peddlers of all kinds. But don’t be tempted to think this is a Disneyesque display for the visitor, the same hustle and bustle has been going on for centuries, before the idea of tourism even entered the vocabulary.
The Souks, Medina, and Mellah
Radiating off the square, the entrances to the souks, with their cupboard-size shops of dangling lamps, racks of soft leather babouches (wonderfully comfortable slippers), brightly coloured ceramics and elegant djellabas, entice you into darkened mysterious alleyways, the heart of the Medina.
Marrakech Medina, the area within the ancient city walls, is, as with all medina’s in Morocco, built around three main sections; the Kasbah, once the neighbourhood of the rich and powerful, where the blank, windowless walls hid homes of enormous opulence; the Mellah, the Jewish enclave surrounded by a wall with a fortified gateway, and usually placed near the royal palace or the governor’s residence, to protect its inhabitants -as they played a vital role in the local economy – from recurring riots; and the souk, which simply means ‘market’, the commercial area that fed and clothed the townsfolk and furnished their homes. While the souks may appear haphazardly laid out they are actually organised by trades; metalworkers, carpenters and furniture makers, djellaba tailors, tanneries – all of life’s necessities contained in the Medina’s walls.
Everyday Marrakechi Life
Keep walking – and prepare to be lost – and you will come to everyday life within the Medina, the workshops that supply the souks, the miniscule workers cafes, the weavers and tailors, barbers and TV repair shops, flea markets and tinsmiths. The Medina is divided in quartiers, and each quartier is built around the five most important elements of Moroccan life –the mosque, the hammam, the bakery, the food market, and the infant school. Life within the Medina is maintained through benign interdependence, the threads of everyday existence interwoven in a way that ceased to exist almost anywhere else in the world since medieval times.
Marrakech is one of the most exotic – and safest – places you could chose to visit, but pause for a moment and put your mind beyond the gilt and gaudiness. The same sense of awe and bedazzlement that you feel has been felt by visitors to the Red City for almost a thousand years.
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