| The very name Marrakech
conjures up images of an exotic, distant city, of hot desert winds
blowing in from the Sahara desert, of magic carpets
and snake charmers and of spices and perfumes brought in by the
camel trains. Marrakech, set within the rose-coloured walls of the
medina lies a reality that is not that far removed – a labyrinth
of many snaking streets that open onto lush tropical gardens and
alleyways leading to lively souks.
The focal point of the city is the central square, the Jemaa-el-Fna,
an amazing gathering place and the social centre of the city that
at dusk offers a landscape little changed since the medieval times.
And towering over all this is the Koutoubia mosque,
the tallest building in Marrakech, and a reminder of the importance
of Islam to the lives of the city's residents.
Along with Méknes, Fez and Rabat,
Marrakech is 1 of Morocco’s 4 Imperial
Cities. Founded around 1062 by the Berber Almoravids
and soon became the capital of the Islamic empire that reached from
central Spain to West Africa. The Almoravid conquest of southern
Spain led to an exchange of culture investing this isolated desert
enclave of the cosmopolitan atmosphere of Andalucia
and something that it has retained a feel for today.
There followed a succession of ruling dynasties - the Almohads
left an architectural legacy of a variety of Marrakech’s best-known
landmarks, which include el Mansour mosques and
the Koutoubia. Next, the Merinids
who turned their attentions to the city of Fez,
leading Marrakech into an era of provincial dejection, but the coming
of the Sa’adians spelled a turnaround in
the city's fortunes. Trade was enlivened and the legacy of the magnificent
Sa’adian tombs was left for tourists to enjoy today. However,
the long period of Alaouite governance turned the
tables against the city again. Early 17th-century ruler Moulay
Ismail went as far as stripping the gold and marble from
Marrakech’s beautiful Badi Palace in order
to lavish his new capital, Méknes, with
yet more glamour.
The early 20th-century French influence can be seen in the Art
Deco commercial area of Guéliz
to the northwest. But the most meaningful legacy of this colonial
rule is the French language, which is still spoken by all of the
educated Moroccans. Finally, a wide range of pleasure-seekers, from
the glamorous to the distinctly insalubrious, left their mark on
the city after World War II. Winston Churchill, Yves Saint
Laurent and the Rolling Stones rubbed
shoulders with hippies, American beat writers and the new breed
of visitors keen to see what all the fuss was about.
Today, the major focus of Marrakech continues to be the Jemaa-el-Fna,
which comes to life after dark and is a riot of enticing colour,
noise and smells, with the fire-eaters, dancers, snake charmers,
acrobats and fortune-tellers. Rows of trestle tables are set up
in the evening to serve up boiled snails, barbecued kebabs, mouthwatering
tajines and a host of more or less appetising other foodstuffs.
Around this vast open space stretch the shadowy alleyways of the
souks - a vast marketplace selling carpets and candles, herbs and
potions, spices, jewellery, meat and metalwork.
This Islamic city, Marrakech is in a male-dominated
society, however, Morocco is one of the more liberal Muslim countries
and the government is quite anxious to show itself as a progressive
state. King Mohammed VI is energetically promoting
women education and disadvantaged groups such as the Berbers, the
indigenous population of the Atlas Mountains.
Marrakech is attractively located at the foot of the High
Atlas Mountains, snow-capped through much of the year in
contrast to the desert heat of the city. Summers can be sweltering
hot, but winter is bright and crisp, while autumn brings delicious
fresh produce into the markets and spring sees the Atlas
Mountains covered with beautiful flowering gardens.