Marrakesh: the pink city – souqs and luxury (I) – Morocco

02 May

Marrakesh, the first day

Short Description. From Ville Nouvelle I went to Djemaa el-Fna Square and the old medina (the area with riads, souqs, and fondouqs). I visited Douira du Musee Mouassine, Medersa Ali ben Youssef and Musee de Marrakesh. In the evening, I met Mohamed in the central square.

Long Description

After the long road trip of the previous day (from the Zagora desert over the High Atlas mountains and down to Marrakesh), I slept until late in the morning. Before she left for her job, Naima had prepared a simple breakfast for me: omelet with typical Moroccan bread and green tea. After I had breakfast, I relaxed in the cozy living room of Naima’s apartment, with her kitten White in my arms, and posted some pictures from Morocco on my Facebook page, Authentic Travels.

At noon, I wandered through the neighborhood with stylish villas where Naima lived and headed to the old town. I crossed Ville Nouvelle, the new part of the town with modern buildings built by French colonists in the early XXth century, during the French protectorate. Tall European-style buildings flanked the streets and large boulevards that neatly led to the tangled labyrinth of the medina.

The pink-orange fortification walls surrounding the old city, the medina, raised opposite an intersection with heavy traffic. Founded by Almoravids (1070-72) and capital of the Almohads (1147-1269), Marrakesh was an important cultural, political and economic center in the western Muslim world (North of Africa and Andalusia). Originally an outpost for many trading caravans that came from the desert, the Almoravids fortified it and built an underground irrigation system (khettara). During the Merenides dynasty, Marrakesh lost its importance in favor of the imperial cities of Fes and Meknes. However, Marrakesh reborn during the Saadian dynasty when the rulers intended to transform it into an imperial capital.

Marrakesh - the Koutoubia Mosque

Marrakesh – the Koutoubia Mosque

A park with lush vegetation preceded the Koutoubia Mosque, an iconic monument of the city’s religious architecture. The mosque’s minaret was the tallest in the city (70m height). Local people considered it an important landmark of the urban scenery and a symbol of Marrakesh. Near the city’s most famous market – Djemaa el-Fna Square, street vendors sold water from a colorful traditional leather bag.

A true open-air theater, Djemaa el-Fna Square was listed as a UNESCO intangible heritage site for its inherent value through which it preserved its liveliness and traditions. The market’s swarm transformed almost every minute. New vendors came, others left. New artists appeared, others disappeared. Snake charmers were inviting everybody to take photos with the snakes. For a small fee, you could have a picture with a snake wrapped around you. Drum players strolled among the stalls that abounded in fresh orange juices (only 10Dh). A poorly dressed man tried to sell his pigeons for little money. Stalls packed-out with dried fruits created a kind of organization of the square. Anybody sold anything at any time of day and night. Ivory statues, orange fresh juice, chickens, henna tattoos.

Marrakesh - Djemaa el-Fna Square

Marrakesh – Djemaa el-Fna Square

Marrakesh intensely lived its daily life that pulsed in the maze of alleys, crammed pink-orange dwellings, bazaars (souq), inns (fondouk), public baths (hammam), mosques and Koranic schools (madrasas). All kinds of merchandise covered the walls of the commercial streets and overflowed with enormous quantities in souqs. Souq el Kessabine was packed-out with merchandise and of its main alley, a myriad of alleys branched out – all of them full of shops with shawls, pillows, gold, jewelry, slippers, and anything else you need. Souq Laiksour abounded with Berber carpets hung from the ceiling, colorful shawls and paintings of local artists.

Marrakesh - one of the souqs in the medina

Marrakesh – one of the souqs in the medina

Elaborately stucco ornaments marked the spot of secret riads hidden on side alleys or the shrine of a saint (zawiga). The streets in the medina were so narrow that only muzzling mopeds and mules could enter there. Merchants ignored the exfoliated plaster of the houses and displayed their goods on the ancient backdrop of the medina.

At the beginning of the XXth century, the medina in Marrakesh featured 80 public fountains and each neighborhood had its mosque, hammam, gardens, and orchards. Near the Mouassine Mosque, Douiria du Musee Mouassine was a small museum that explained the restoration works of this XVII-XVIIIth-century building with typical Saadian architecture. Douiria (‘small guest house’) had been restored using modern techniques that highlighted the original ornamentation impeccably preserved under a thick layer of plaster (original doors and windows made of inlaid wood, colored stuccoes, painstakingly mosaics).

Marrakesh - Douiria du Musee Mouassine

Marrakesh – Douiria du Musee Mouassine

In the medina of Marrakesh, there were over 140 funduqs – medieval inns organized around an inner courtyard that housed stables and merchants’ shops on the ground floor porches, and guest rooms on the upper floor gallery. The funduqs were later transformed into craftsmen workshops where modern artists exhibited their works of art or simply displayed old objects for sale. The dilapidated courtyard of Fondouk Sarsar continued the street shops and under the ground floor arches, was packed with works of local artists.

Marrakesh - a typical narrow street in the medina

Marrakesh – a typical narrow street in the medina

Near Ali Ben Youssef Mosque, there were the crossroads of two main routes that ran through the medina – two routes that connected important gates (Bab Doukkala – Bab Aylen, Bab El Khemis – Bab Er-Robb). Next to the mosque, I entered Ali Ben Youssef Medersa, the largest Koranic center in North Africa built during the Saadian dynasty. Like other medersas in Fes, the medersa was centered around an inner courtyard with an ablution fountain and a prayer room with a Mecca-oriented mihrab. The first floor featured several smaller courtyards, with galleries and carved wooden screens. On the same floor, 130 modest chambers once housed nearly 900 students. Hispano-Moorish ornaments, thorough mosaics, richly colored stuccoes, and wooden lattice screens (mashrabiyya) abounded in all corners of the medersa.

Marrakesh - Ali Ben Youssef Medersa

Marrakesh – Ali Ben Youssef Medersa

Refurbished as the Museum of Marrakesh, the former Mnebhi Palace hosted sculpture, painting and photography exhibitions in the old chambers of the building. The former palace featured a huge inner courtyard, rich in colorful decorations and various ornaments. Originally opened to the sky, the courtyard was later covered with a glass skylight. The palace also had a large kitchen and a royal hammam.

Marrakesh - the former Mnebhi Palace

Marrakesh – the former Mnebhi Palace

Mohamed didn’t know where to find me at the Musee de Marrakesh. Eventually, we agreed to meet in Djemaa el-Fna Square. I chose a new route to follow to the central square, through countless souqs (Chaaria, Talaa, Serrajine) and lesser-known neighborhoods. In any enlargement of the street, vendors sold any kind of merchandise. Dotted only with local shops, narrow streets ran endlessly. No other tourists wandered the area.

Marrakesh - narrow old streets in the medina

Marrakesh – narrow old streets in the medina

I passed mosques, hammams, and public fountains where people filled buckets with water. Tajines boiled on grills placed in the street, just opposite to a stand with a pile of slippers for sale. I then passed the Ben Salah Mosque in a sordid neighborhood. Shabby houses lined bumpy streets, and dirt traces were flowing out of the houses. Concerned that I would never show up, Mohammed called me to find out where I was every five minutes. I didn’t know where I was either.

Marrakesh - Djemaa el-Fna square at night

Marrakesh – Djemaa el-Fna square at night

In Djemaa el-Fna Square, I found Mohammed at Café de France. One of the square’s emblematic cafés, Café de France had a view of the square and of the Koutoubia minaret. We enjoyed orange juice and little cakes and watched the sunset over the square. At that moment, the stalls in the square started to bustle and locals cooked various local dishes in the street. They roasted all kinds of meats and fish and then drowned them in different sauces and spices. We sat in a small group where a Moroccan wearing djellaba recited a poem. I didn’t understand a word, but after the performance. Mohammed laughed and gave him a dime . People met in Djemaa el-Fna Square for any reason. To socialize, to dine, to watch a theater play, to listen to music, to admire local artists.

At 9 pm in the evening, I met Naima who had just finished her English classes and we took a cab back home.

The pink city of Marrakesh (I) is my first diary about Marrakesh, Morocco. Its continuation, my second post about Marrakesh can be found at the following link The pink city of Marrakesh (part II). And here are all my Travel Diaries from Morocco (x21).

Have you been to Marrakesh or plan to go there? Leave a comment below this post and tell me what you liked in Morocco or what you would like to see there.

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