The long, storied history of learning and scholarship in Morocco is often surprising to first time visitors, and even to some longtime inhabitants. In fact, Morocco boasts the world’s oldest university – the University of al-Qarawiyyin (also written as: Al Quaraouiyine or Al-Karaouine). Recognized by UNESCO and the Guinness Book of World Records as the world’s oldest university, al-Qarawiyyin was founded in 859 AD by Fatima al-Fihri, the daughter of a wealthy merchant family who immigrated to Morocco from modern-day Tunisia. (more…)
The lush grounds of a golf club in the outskirts of Marrakesh are now home to one of the only museums dedicated to African art on the continent. The Museum of Contemporary Art Al Maaden (MACAAL), privately-owned by a non-profit organization, had its official opening in February of this year. The museum aims to showcase the work of established and emerging artists making art related to Africa. Apart from a big contemporary art museum that opened last year in Cape Town and a few privately-owned galleries that have sprung up, there are relatively few places where African art can be seen on home turf. (more…)
One of the most valid proofs of a successful visit to Morocco is a picture of you with one of the snakes of Marrakesh slithering over your shoulders. But what if thinking about being near a snake sends a chill shuddering down your spine? You still want to see all the wonders the Red City has to offer, but you hate snakes. It’s quite a dilemma. It makes you wonder: How can I enjoy Marrakesh when I’m afraid of snakes? (more…)
The hustle and bustle of Marrakesh is exciting, but can become overwhelming. One of the key secrets to enjoying an extended time in the Red City is by taking short breaks in the many gardens and parks across the city. Not only are they places worth visiting as a stand alone reason to go, they will provide moments to take a breath and get back to nature after trawling the shops and souks. Many of the gardens are free or only 10 dirham making it easy to pop into a park or garden for a short amount of time and chill out. If you find yourself needing to escape the madness of the medina, be sure to head to one of these gardens to refresh your spirits. (more…)
There is a buzz surrounding Morocco’s food scene at the moment and its not hard to see where all the fuss is coming from; new and inspiring restaurants are popping up all across the country. Let’s be honest, Morocco has always been high up on the must-visit list for foodie travellers. But it is a new wave of fusion cooking and cultural dialogue that is at the centre of this gastronomical shake up and Morocco appears to be waking up to the creative re-imagining of traditional dining experiences that’s been happening in innovative eateries across the world. Intrepid travelers are looking for great places to eat in Marrakesh and beyond. (more…)
They say a picture is worth a thousand words, and it is in the heart of the Red City where you will find a collection of photographs worth well over 40,000 words if we take the saying literally. The Maison de la Photographie, one of Morocco’s richest photography museums, is located in a hidden spot in Marrakesh’s medina. You will have to get past the popular souks and walk through some twisting back alleys to find the beautiful riad where the museum is set, but even if you get lost on your way, the museum is well worth the hunt.
It’s 1578 and Morocco is at war with Portugal. On a fateful August day, the Moroccan forces wipe out 26,000 Portuguese men including the army’s commander, King Don Sebastian. Morocco’s commander, Sultan Abd El Malik survives to witness his kingdom’s crushing victory but perishes shortly thereafter on the battlefield – but not without first naming his youngest brother his successor. (more…)
If you walk too quickly through the busy streets of the Marrakesh medina, you may just miss out on one of its biggest treasures. Once the largest Quranic school in North Africa, the facade of the stunning Medersa Ben Youssef (Ben Youssef Madrasa) blends too easily with the dusty houses and buildings of the medina. But don’t be mistaken by its plain wooden doorway and bare outer walls. The inside of this ancient school is filled with magnificent craftsmanship details from zeillij tiling to incredible stuccowork and beautiful wood carvings. So take a breather on your journey through the winding streets of the medina and discover a magnificent (and quiet!) sanctuary that will make you forget all about the hustle and bustle of the hectic souks.
Hidden from the world for roughly 200 years, the Saadian Tombs were found a short distance from the bustling city center of Marrakesh, and are a truly rich architectural gem. Housing two lavish mausoleums with approximately 60 tombs and over 100 more in the beautiful gardens, the Saadian Tombs are one of the most elaborate and best preserved resting places in Morocco today.
Morocco is a country unlike any other. And, Marrakesh is a city of equal stature. From getting lost in the maze of souks while trying to avoid the gravitational pull of each shop, we found ourselves in middle of the mayhem one February day.
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.”
Marrakesh is home to enough attractions and curiosities to keep people occupied for several days, but if you only have 24 hours, here is one way to fill your day:
Start your day with a freshly squeezed glass of orange juice while you watch the city begin its day. You can purchase a large glass for around 3 Dh in the Djemaa al-Fna. Next, get your bearings by sauntering over to the Koutoubia Mosque. This building has the tallest minaret in the city and is one of Marrakesh’s most iconic sites. While non-Muslims are not permitted entry to the mosque, everyone is welcome to roam around the gardens.
Take a spin through the souks in the heart of the medina and start shopping for souvenirs. Shopkeepers traditionally gave a discount to the first customer of the day, although usually it’s worth checking out a few stalls before you buy anything. (more…)
Marrakesh visitors with money to burn have no shortage of places to spend it, from luxurious spas to endless marketplace treasures. Happily, this vibrant city also has many free things to enjoy as well.
Djeema el Fna
Marrakesh’s symbolic heart, the Djemaa el Fna, is the city’s town square, and at any hour of the day, musicians, food vendors, acrobats and magicians can vie for your attention. Djemaa actually means “meeting place,” and this plaza has served as one for centuries. Lined with cafes and bazaars, the Djemaa el Fna certainly has many places to spend money, but a lot of the location’s fun involves walking or sitting and enjoying the carnival-esque atmosphere. (more…)
Many know Marrakech as a bustling cultural hub, rich with historical sites, museums and colorful souks. Locals and visitors alike are especially drawn to Place Djemaa el Fna, the city’s main square, which showcases a nightly maze of dinner stalls, storytellers, musicians, artists and more. The reputation makes Marrakech a natural home to the Popular Arts Festival, taking place July 10-18 this year.
Thousands of Moroccans and international visitors flock to the festival each year to admire the artistic feats of performers from throughout Morocco and around the world (particularly Europe and Asia). Attending the range of Moroccan performances will give you a taste of the nation’s ancient past as well as its modern pop culture. Look for featured performances by ancient folk dancers, traditional Berber musicians, and fusion and pop bands. Other talents on display include fire swallowers, storytelling, snake charming and acrobatics. The nightly “Fantasia” just outside of town also draws crowds with groups of men and women in traditional clothing, presenting a choreographed performance on horseback. (more…)
Some travelers have only a few days for their holiday to Morocco, yet want to experience the rich history of an imperial city, a taste of luxurious modernity and the serenity of the Sahara and nearby mountains. For these travelers, Marrakesh brings good news … you can experience it all.
The highlight of Marrakesh is its main square, Place Djemaa el-Fna, which hosts clamoring crowds by day and a flurry of festivities by night. To survey the evening’s bustle before joining it, opt for a traditional tajine dinner at a terrace cafe. The elevated view will help you inventory the maze of chefs offering local fare, rows of booths selling freshly squeezed orange juice and the circles of storytellers, musicians, artists and more. (more…)
Morocco’s souks are known for their bold colors and traditional handicrafts, but how can visitors to Morocco turn these treasures into something special? Maryam Montague of the well-known Morocco blog, MyMarrakesh.com, recently published Marrakesh By Design, which provides do-it-yourself solutions for people who would like to incorporate their souk purchases and a distinct Moroccan atmosphere into their own homes.
Marrakesh By Design completely covers design elements from floor coverings to ceilings and light fixtures, touching on all aspects in between, but it doesn’t do this in a void. It would be easy simply to fill the pages of this book with information on how to design using Moroccan concepts as a vehicle, but Montague incorporates elements of Moroccan culture, language and history within the pages of the book. She provides a comprehensive background on why certain design components are prevalent in the country and what cultural influences have played a part in creating the modern Moroccan home. (more…)
Hot air balloon excursions from the outskirts of Marrakesh take passengers over the Western High Atlas Mountains, the Oueds Tinsift and the Al Hawuz Plain. Half-day trips start early, around 5:00 or 6:00 a.m., so the balloon can be launched before or around sunrise. The early morning hours offer the best light for enjoying the view.
Balloon rides don’t operate during the height of summer (mid-July through late August) due to southern Morocco’s extreme heat. When booking, make sure the company you plan to go with has certified pilots and utilizes trailing vehicles that follow the course of the balloon in case of an emergency. Ask whether transport to and from Marrakesh and any meals are included. Most half-day excursions include 4×4 transport, a camel ride and breakfast in a Berber tent.
Each hot air balloon can hold up to 10 passengers, including the pilot. The balloon’s basket is made up of four sections, and three passengers can stand in each section. Keep this in mind when booking; most companies also offer a pricier option of renting the entire balloon for a romantic couple’s flight. Reduced rates may be available for children, although be sure to check the minimum age requirement. (more…)
Moroccans and tourists alike would agree that a Morocco trip would be incomplete unless you visit Marrakesh. Imagine a cosmopolitan, yet ancient, city colored in red, with very temperate and healthy weather, located at the foot of the Atlas Mountains on a trek . Here you will enjoy colors and light, food and shopping, relaxing and exploring. For many, it is not enough to visit Marrakesh once and come back regularly; many Europeans and Americans, charmed by its unique atmosphere, have moved there permanently and started calling it ‘home.’ There is simply nowhere else in the world like Marrakesh.
The list of things you can do in Marrakesh is endless. If you are interested in visiting some historical landmarks in the red city, here are a few you should not miss: (more…)
Travel memoirs seem to fall into three camps. There is the guidebook, where the author fills the pages with historical facts, telling the colorful past of the author’s current view. There is the narrative history, where the author travels with personal baggage that gets unpacked throughout the journey. And there is the immersion narrative, where the author becomes nearly invisible, except as a portal through which one tastes the food, talks with the locals and tells of life in another time and place.
Such is Peter Mayne’s A Year in Marrakesh. First published nearly 60 years ago, it is remarkable for its insights into a culture isolated from much of modernity’s reach. The early 1950’s were a tumultuous time for Morocco—the country gained independence from France in 1956—but for Mayne, it was full of the turmoil of daily life. Determined to settle in the city like a native and not a tourist, Mayne walks the delicate line between foreigner and observer, vacillating between the frustrations and joys of his new life. Much like a long trip, the book starts out slowly, a languid pace that has all the time in the world to explore a new place. And much like a trip, it is suddenly over, and too soon. (more…)
Filled with history and stories, the ancient city of Marrakesh has been called the “Red City” for some time. As a former capital and perennially thriving trading post, it also houses some of the finest artifacts in the country. And, as the city has always served as the symbolic and physical link between north and south, mountain and plain, it is one of the best places to experience the true mélange of Moroccan culture.
If you want to experience all that Marrakesh’s vibrant cultural scene has to offer, make sure not to miss these outstanding spots.
Jardin Majorelle and the Museum of Islamic Art – A botanical garden first built by French artist Jacques Majorelle in 1924, the grounds today host innumerable flowering plants and trees, more than 15 bird species and a series of fountains and walkways. The garden has been open to the public since 1947 and has been owned by Yves Saint Laurent since 1980. The garden is also home to the excellent Museum of Islamic Art, which houses traditional pottery, jewelry and metalwork, textiles and other art from Morocco and North Africa. (more…)
If you’ve read even a little bit about Marrakesh prior to your tours to Morocco, you probably know that this cultural hub is bursting with activity, especially in Place Djemaa el-Fna, the city’s main square. For a first-time visitor, approaching the clamor of the square at sunset can feel disorienting. To survey the bustle before joining it, consider starting the evening with a terrace dinner.
Terrace restaurants surround the square, and most specialize in the traditional multi-course spread of salad, tajine or couscous and whole fruit dessert. You’ll pay a bit more to dine here than you would at ground level, but the balcony seating is absolutely worth the extra dirhams.
West of the square, the modestly lit minaret of the Koutoubia Mosque seems to mark a main entrance where a continuous current of silhouettes migrate toward the festivities. Motorbike headlights sprinkle the crowd, weaving through the shadows like dancing fireflies.
Following the migratory path leads your eye to long rows of dinner vendors under a cloud of steam. Though fuzzy from a distance, wandering toward the wafting scents of cumin later in the evening takes you down countless aisles lined with vendors on one side and tent-covered seating on the other. (more…)
The “Red City,” as Marrakech is known, is bursting with all the delights of a Moroccan metropolis. A visit here can be understandably overwhelming. While days, weeks and even years can be spent immersing yourself in the city’s charms (an estimated 10, 000 Europeans have retired here), here is a guide to the best the city has to offer.
If you see only one thing in Marrakech, let it be Djemma el Fna square. In the shadow of Koutoubia Mosque, the square is the pulsing center of the old medina. With its circus of performers by day and food stalls by night, the chaotic energy is as tangible in the air as the smell of cinnamon tea and lamb tajine. And though it seems like a spectacle designed only to separate tourists from their dirham, its cultural significance has merited a UNESCO designation as a “Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity”. Watch how the shades of humanity change from the morning orange juice vendors to the afternoon snake charmers, water sellers, dancing Berber boys and chained Barbary apes. By evening it morphs into the busiest such square in all of Africa. The sights and sounds, the tastes and smells—indulge them all, and even if you only have a day, you will have truly known the bustling heart of Marrakech. (more…)
Over the centuries, Marrakesh has been a desert oasis, military headquarters, a religious center and the playground of a sultan. It is one of Morocco’s great cities, but it began as a watering hole for the local Berber tribes. It was little more than a remote outpost before the Almoravid Berber leader Youssef bin Tashufin, cousin to the sultan, and his wife Zeinab founded what would become the city of Marrakesh in 1062 A.D.
Under Tashufin’s guidance, the city grew house by house. A mosque was established and, eventually, Marrakesh became the capital of the Almoravid Empire. Under the Almohads, Marrakesh developed into a luxurious Islamic city. It quickly became a center of commercial power. (more…)
The lively and energetic streets of Marrakech, Morocco, become even livelier during the annual Marrakech Popular Arts Festival. This multi-day festival features artists, dancers, singers, theatre troupes, fortune tellers and snake charmers from all over Morocco as well as Europe, Asia and beyond. Held annually in July, the Arts Festival is one of the most celebrated and popular events in Morocco.
Festival performances take place in venues scattered throughout Marrakech. Most of the major events take place around the grounds of El Badi Palace. The grounds of El Badi provide a historic backdrop for the festival and visitors will be offered a glimpse of its former grandeur. Red walls and an expansive courtyard are all that remains from the once great palace that took over 25 years to construct. Sadly Moulay Ismaï destroyed the palace in the late 1600s to decorate his own palace in Meknes and most of what is left of El Badi is in ruins. (more…)
Home to hundreds of exotic plants and peacefully shaded grounds, the Majorelle Garden provides a nice reprieve from the bustling streets and souks of Marrakesh. The impressive gardens house a collection of exotic bamboo, cactuses and palms from around the world and provide a haven for many local birds like storks, kestrals and flycatchers. The botanical garden also houses the Islamic Art Museum featuring North African textiles, jewelry, carpets and other Islamic treasures.
In 1919, Jacques Majorelle, an expatriate French painter, settled in Morocco and purchased the land that would eventually become Majorelle Garden. He created a beautiful home, workshop and vast garden where he could dabble in his hobby of growing exotic plants and trees. The gardens opened to the public in 1947, but severely deteriorated after his death in 1962. (more…)
Marrakesh is one of Morocco’s largest and most popular destinations, and it can feel a bit overwhelming if you’re wandering into the city for the first time. Take a moment to orient yourself, then head to Jemaa el-Fnaa (Djema el-Fna or Djemaa el-Fnaa), the main square of Marrakesh and a marketplace located in the medina quarter, which is considered the old city.
The name Jemaa el-Fnaa is thought to mean “Assembly of the Dead” or “Place of the Vanished Mosque.” No one is sure of the exact meaning, though locals believe the name refers to an Almoravid mosque, which was destroyed over a century ago. Today, the most important thing about famed square is its relation to Marrakesh. Where there was once a mosque there is now a main square, which locals and visitors share throughout the year. (more…)
Marrakesh, Morocco, is the embodiment of all the magic and wonder people look for through traveling. One of the most unique ways to truly lose oneself in all the beauty of this land is through a customized Morocco tour, which takes in Marrakech and the rest and best Morocco has to offer. Many of the Morocco tour operators in and around Morocco have private guided tours included on their list of services. (more…)
Can you imagine a caravan coming across Morocco hundreds of years ago? Rising up in front of weary travelers is a tower. Prayer time and hot quiet desert air allows the singsong chant of the muezzin drift out to meet them. Such sights and sounds have greeted travelers as they neared Marrakech for more than 700 years. Sitting in the center of the city is the Koutoubia Mosque and minaret.
The Koutoubia Mosque has quite a history. Its name comes from the Arabic word for “bookseller”. The selling of manuscripts and books was commonplace and took place nearby. This is an interesting, namely because even in the 1200s books were unknown in the Christian world. (more…)
Marrakesh (or Marrakech), sometimes called the red town because of the red Kasbah wall surrounding the medina, was founded in 1062. Youssef bin Tashufin, cousin to the sultan began construction of the city. Under his watch, houses were built and a mosque begun. Marrakech was the capital of the Almoravid Empire that covered a vast area from Maghreb to Europe. Now, along with the Berber, the Andalusia influence was born.
Marrakech, under the Almoravid grew into an important splendid Islamic city of commercial power and wealth.
Captured by the Almohads in 1147, the religious and civil buildings were torn down. Abdal Mou’min, the great builder, began the Koutoubia mosque. This mosque and its spectacular minaret gave Marrakech its most outstanding landmark. Other important structures such as Menara Gardens were also built in this time frame. Scholars, philosophers and other thinkers of the time converged on the city. Caravans came through ancient Marrakech, making it a very powerful commercial center.
Taken over by the Merenids in the mid-1200s started Marrakesh on a downward spiral. Fez had already been established as the capital. Caravans stopped coming and the major source of income was lost. Marrakech was neglected by the Merenids and fell into a period of decline.
Saadians took over Morocco in 1522. Mostly in ruins, the leader chose to make Marrakech his capital in 1551. Under the guidance of Mohammed Al Mahdi, Marrakech began to be restored to its former grandeur. During this period, the Saadians built many wonderful structures such as the Al Bedi Palace. A glimpse into the life of Sultan can be seen in this still beautiful place. Moroccan crafts reached a pinnacle under this dynasty attracting many artisans whose work is still visible today. Additionally, Marrakech drew Islamic holy men to its gates. Upon death, many were buried within the city’s splendid tombs. By the 1600s, Marrakech had been restored to its former glory. Remaining culturally and economically important until the 1669, it had become the most important and influential city in all of Morocco.
An invasion and capture by the Alaouites in 1669 saw Marrakech lose its status, again. The Alaouite sultan moved the capital back to Fez. Marrakech fell into disrepair one more time.
Mid 1700s saw Mohammed III restore most of Marrakech. It remained largely unchanged until 1917. The French invaded Morocco and routed the Saharan chieftain, El Hiba who had captured Marrakech in 1912. Morocco was held as a protectorate by France and was governed by the Pasha El Glaoua. The French assisted with revolts of the Berber tribes. Under French tutelage, the Pasha became one of the richest, most influential men in Morocco. A French-styled city was begun outside the medina walls in 1913. French protection ended in the mid 20th century.
Morocco gained her independence from France in 1956. The new king, Mohammed V took over the throne and the Glaoua family was removed from power and its wealth confiscated. With the new monarchy, the capital was moved to Rabat.
Marrakech, today, is an important provincial city. Its Islamic roots are displayed proudly. French occupation brought in European influence, as the new city of Marrakech shows. However, the heart of Marrakech, still beats to the same ancient rhythm.
Written by: Carole Morris, JBT Correspondent