Karl’s Chronicles. Article 50 Marrakesh – The Maze of Shadows
Pummelled and bruised like a failed fighter, the glum wasp-yellow taxi coughed its way down Rue Mohamed V. The broad artery named after the first King at Independence from the Alaouite Dynasty. My eyes took hold of an enormous tower soaring above the immediate landscape. Commanded by lattice strokes and a ceramic inlay that embraced mathematical harmony. A precision so acute it would satisfy even the stratospheric standards of Hercule Poirot, pleasing his mania for order, method, and clinical neatness. It rose above an arc of manicured gardens where large families and courting couples strolled amongst orange, date palms, roses and languid fountains. The driver leaned forward and under a long contented sigh breathed the words “Ah The Koutoubia.”
I afforded him a quizzical look, wondering if the sigh expressed a romantic thread, having unravelled in much the same manner as those amorous couples, lost in each others halo. He recognised my puzzlement and informed me it was a minaret of the Almohad Empire, constructed under the mighty reign of Sultan Yacoub el Mansour. The foundations, a series of small brick pillars signified the final structure of the original mosque, but a replacement lay directly to the north. The minaret dominated the landscape, a religious finger pointing to Heaven and one whose grace attracted the lovebirds to the gardens below.
The sun drowned the city in gold before it slipped behind the distant rooftops, quickly taking all the colour and throwing it across the sky. Sunset enticed a change of personality in the Jemma el Fna, the beating heart of Marrakesh as the grand square on the Medina’s western fringe, buzzed into life. Plumes of silver smoke coiled above canvas restaurants, in rhythm to the jamboree of wind instruments that sounded like an English fox hunt. The redcoats of the chase replaced by red tunics and Fez hats of a contented huddle of musicians.
Under this grating serenade, both Moroccans and foreigners plumped themselves on long narrow benches, packed around tables like a Medieval banquet. One could plump for earthenware plates of fried aubergine, turmeric-yellow beans, grilled spiced lamb, bowls of harira soup and domed ceramic tajine dishes belching away over vermilion coals. Looked down upon by steaming pyramids of cows skulls, whose boiled meat was pulled and pushed into soft-baked rolls. The warm air drifted amongst the diners with the endearing warmth of a soiree hostess. Introducing aromas of roasted cumin, garlic and fragrant spice onto faces already fattened by the gastronomy of it all.
Further into the square as gas lanterns fought the advancing night, storytellers enthralled an ever-shifting ring of spectators. Grey-bearded men as ancient as the stories they told cranked them out through old gramophone speakers. Their hooded jellaba robes shuddering to the expressive energy beneath.
Nearby, small bands of musicians played on drums and lutes, spinning their tunes into a rhythmic whirlpool as an ecstatic crowd danced with the current. Behind, and cast ashore, a lone performer nestled on an upturned crate ran his withered hands over a ginbri, an African lute. His music lapped at the feet of the deaf and uninterested and never did a crowd form.
Throughout the square, there were charmers of comatose snakes and boxing matches fought by unequal opponents. Endangered monkeys dressed in childish clothes while veiled belly dancers were actually men. Like a tremendous open circus without a tent, the square held stage to contortionists, jugglers, magicians, acrobats and comedians. Compounding an overwhelming sense of the spectacular and the peculiar. Performed with all the illusion, burst, and bang of a firework display that eventually fizzled around the midnight hour.
Marrakesh had magic, and not all came to pass in the Jemaa el Fna. Though heads did pass this way, lopped from the neck as the square, assigned as ‘the assembly of the dead’ was once an execution ground, displaying the heads of criminals as recent as the nineteenth century. Writhing off from the square like the snakes of Medusa (another one who lost her head) slither the shadowy passages that connect the ‘red cities’ great stash of historical treasures. A map as complicated as a child’s scribble and just as unfathomable to work out, where incredible luck and a gifted memory could secure victory on a retrace.
One major thoroughfare which avoided the need to work the lanes and alleyways, connecting the Jemaa el Fna to the souk’s and museum clustered around the great bulk of the Ben Youssef mosque, ran Rue Souk Smarine. An isthmus linking the square and the mosque from which open space restored some calm. Textile and tailoring businesses operate either side of Smarine, standing defiant against the sweeping change of souvenir stalls. One can still have traditional shirts and kaftans tailor-made in smaller shops that line the arcades here.
Rue Souk Smarine becomes Souk el Kebir and then Souk Chaāria eventually emptying like a river into Place de la Kissaria. The Ben Youssef mosque acts as a convenient landmark for the Medina’s northern circumference. The Medersa (Koranic school) next door is worth entering to admire the phenomenal décor. Intricate stucco plasterwork above zellij tiling runs through the school. Perfectly high-lighted from the central courtyard where cedarwood lintels exemplify the staggering level of craftmanship. On the second level, small windows from the students quarters offer an interesting angle across the courtyard. At the same time, raising the question of how did eight hundred students once managed to live and study here.
Back in the late 13th century during the Merenid dynasty, Sultan Abou el Hassan constructed a series of schools in Fez and Marrakesh. Laying the foundations to which the Saadians over two centuries later would continue to rebuild, exerting their style from which the plasterwork and zellij tiling belongs.
For further architectural splendour head into the restored Marrakesh museum a couple of minutes south from the medersa. The restoration work throughout the central hall grabs your attention more than the art exhibits themselves. Its origins started as the Dar Mnebbi, an opulent palace of the 19th century for Sultan Abdelaziz’s defence minister Mehdi Mnebbi who shifted into diplomatic corridors as Morocco’s ambassador to Britain. After years of neglect, the palace underwent a thorough restoration by a patron of the arts Omar Benjoullan. Small intimate courtyards and the domed cells of the hammam display contemporary pieces of art.
In the south of the Medina, accessed from Jemaa el Fna by Rue Riad Zitoun Kedim is El Badi Palace. Located on the northwestern corner of the larger Dar el Makhzam (Royal Palace) and commissioned by Ahmed el Mansour, Sultan of the Saadian dynasty in the late 16th century. The palace owed its conception on the ransom paid by Portugal’s failure to claim victory at The Battle of The Three Kings. Where King Sebastiáo’s crusade against an uncle of a deposed Saadian king was to see all three of them die on the frontline—accumulating in a catastrophic defeat for Portuguese domination, and a critical blow to their fortress-strong supremacy. From the battle rose Ahmed ‘el Mansour’ (‘The Victorious’) becoming the country’s undisputed ruler.
Only the ceremonial part of the palace remains open today. It was established on a lavish scale to impress foreign dignitaries. Whether conferring in the secluded garden or within the Koubba el Hamsiniya (The fifty pavilion), the palace continues to evoke a grandeur respondent to triumphant times.
Slightly northeast of El Badi across Ferblantiers square and running the entirety of the adjacent street is Bahia Palace. The stage of another lavish construction in a landscape replete with exotic architecture. Fuelled by ego and success and a need for extravagance to spot-light a kings status did at least proffer opportunities for craft workers to project their mastery.
Making the rare advance from slave to chamberlain and finally grand vizier, Si Moussa became the Bahia’s first owner when constructed in 1866. Both Si Moussa and his son Bou Ahmed held the post of Chamberlain under Moulay Hassan’s rule. When Hassan passed away on a tax-collecting mission, Bou Ahmed kept his death under wraps until Mulay Abd el Aziz, Ahmed’s son could be seated on the throne—promoting himself to grand-vizier and regent in the process. Aziz extended the palace with a mosque, hammam and additional gardens. To announce their long-standing devotion and loyalty to the king on his death, the servant’s looted the palace. Eventually, a restoring of order came in time for the French Resident-General, who moved in during the Protectorate.
The front riad (enclosed garden) is a beautifully exotic first port of call. Showing off the immense skills used to complete the stucco plasterwork and zellij tiling, the latter set to geometric patterns that envelope the courtyard. Small tiled salons line three sides of the riad, where doors open onto beds ripe with pomegranate, lemon, and rose—creating a haven of peace which important visitors must have enjoyed after the rigours of public life. The halls around the larger riad endorse other artwork of intricate and ambitious patterns painted across high wooden ceilings. When the strain of your neck brings your eyes back to a comfortable level, they are soon dazzled by the stained-glass windows.
Dazzling seems to aptly sum up the Red City of Marrakesh, a grand trading city where pockets of bustling open spaces lay buried amongst an equally frenetic hive of alleyways. The night brings forth the entertainers, watched over by locals sipping sweet mint tea as foreigners lean over the first floor railings in a hurried call to replicate it on film. Beyond the Medina walls, there are enough interests to warrant additional days of exploration. The Ville Nouvelle projects a strong French character, forming a splendid tapestry too vast for the threadbare coverage an article provides. But one at least starts to see the picture emerge.
For entry into Morocco, the government currently require a ‘negative’ PCR test not older than 72 hours before granting permission to board the flight/ferry. The British government have categorised Morocco as ‘all but essential travel’ meaning you will have to self-isolate on return and consider the risks of travel without insurance.
Several airlines fly from UK direct to Marrakesh’s Manara airport. BA has each-way flights starting at £42. Air France operates regular flights from Heathrow to Marrakesh with prices beginning at £162 for November travel. Try www.cheapflights.co.uk for competitive prices.
Bus #19 runs every 30 minutes from the airport 4km southwest of the city to Pl Foucauld (near the Koutoubia). Ideal for reaching the Jemaa el Fna a minutes walk further east.
The principle bus station (Gare Routière) lays in the north, close to the Medina’s Bab (gate) Doukkala. You can walk to the bus station from Jemma el Fna in under 30 minutes by following Rue Mohammed V northwest until you pass the high Medina walls then keep them on your right side. Book onward tickets a day or two in advance.
Marrakesh has an abundance of hotels, pensions, boutique riads, and budget guest-houses. In summer the rooms can be stifling even with a fan, so consider aircon. Occasionally the staff allow you to sleep al-fresco on the roof, which is a comfortable alternative. www.airbinb.co.uk and www.booking.com have considerable listings as do the Bradt/Rough Guide/LP guidebooks. It’s always worth pre-booking a few nights first then scout an alternative after that. Negotiating a deal with the manager and surveying the premises are two benefits that booking everything ahead doesn’t allow.
The colour and noise of the Jemaa el Fna will ebb after a few days, and you’ll find other restaurants and cafes much cheaper without the hurried service. But taking tea or good coffee at one of the square lined cafes is excellent for people watching.
To alleviate the considerable quantity of plastic bottled water that you’ll consume, it could pay dividends to invest in a proper filter system or use water purification tablets. www.iconlifesaver.com have a decent range with water purifying bottles starting at £124.99 whose replaceable cartridge filters 2000 litres of water. Lifesystems sell chlorine dioxide purification drops for £7.49, which can treat tap and river water. I have used them when trekking and have never had any problems. Purchase them through their website www.lifesystems.co.uk or Amazon www.amazon.co.uk