Marrakesh is a major city of the Kingdom of Morocco. It is the fourth largest city in the country, after Casablanca, Fez and Tangier. It is the capital city of the mid-southwestern region of Marrakesh-Safi. Located to the north of the foothills of the snow-capped Atlas Mountains, Marrakesh is situated 580 km (360 mi) southwest of Tangier, 327 km (203 mi) southwest of the Moroccan capital of Rabat, 239 km (149 mi) south of Casablanca, and 246 km (153 mi) northeast of Agadir.
Marrakesh is possibly the most important of Morocco’s four former imperial cities. The region has been inhabited by Berber farmers since Neolithic times, but the actual city was founded in 1062 by Abu Bakr ibn Umar, chieftain and cousin of Almoravid king Yusuf ibn Tashfin. In the 12th century, the Almoravids built many madrasas (Koranic schools) and mosques in Marrakesh that bear Andalusian influences. The red walls of the city, built by Ali ibn Yusuf in 1122–1123, and various buildings constructed in red sandstone during this period, have given the city the nickname of the “Red City” or “Ochre City”. Marrakesh grew rapidly and established itself as a cultural, religious, and trading centre for the Maghreb and sub-Saharan Africa; Jemaa el-Fnaa is the busiest square in Africa.
The Jemaa el-Fnaa is one of the best-known squares in Africa and is the centre of city activity and trade. It has been described as a “world-famous square”, “a metaphorical urban icon, a bridge between the past and the present, the place where (spectacularized) Moroccan tradition encounters modernity.” It has been part of the UNESCO World Heritage site since 1985. The name roughly means “the assembly of trespassers” or malefactors. Jemaa el-Fnaa was renovated along with much of the Marrakech city, whose walls were extended by Abu Yaqub Yusuf and particularly by Yaqub al-Mansur in 1147–1158. The surrounding mosque, palace, hospital, parade ground and gardens around the edges of the marketplace were also overhauled, and the Kasbah was fortified. Subsequently, with the fluctuating fortunes of the city, Jemaa el-Fnaa saw periods of decline and renewal. Historically this square was used for public decapitations by rulers who sought to maintain their power by frightening the public. The square attracted dwellers from the surrounding desert and mountains to trade here, and stalls were raised in the square from early in its history. The square attracted tradesmen, snake charmers (“wild, dark, frenzied men with long disheveled hair falling over their naked shoulders”), dancing boys of the Chleuh Atlas tribe, and musicians playing pipes, tambourines and African drums. Richard Hamilton said that Jemaa el-Fnaa once “reeked of Berber particularism, of backward-looking, ill-educated countrymen, rather than the reformist, pan-Arab internationalism and command economy that were the imagined future.” Today the square attracts people from a diversity of social and ethnic backgrounds and tourists from all around the world. Snake charmers, acrobats, magicians, mystics, musicians, monkey trainers, herb sellers, story-tellers, dentists, pickpockets, and entertainers in medieval garb still populate the square.
Marrakesh has the largest traditional Berber market in Morocco and the image of the city is closely associated with its souks. Paul Sullivan cites the souks as the principal shopping attraction in the city: “A honeycomb of intricately connected alleyways, this fundamental section of the old city is a micro-medina in itself, comprising a dizzying number of stalls and shops that range from itsy kiosks no bigger than an elf’s wardrobe to scruffy store-fronts that morph into glittering Aladdin’s Caves once you’re inside.” Historically the souks of Marrakesh were divided into retail areas for particular goods such as leather, carpets, metalwork and pottery. These divisions still roughly exist but with significant overlap. Many of the souks sell items like carpets and rugs, traditional Muslim attire, leather bags, and lanterns. Haggling is still a very important part of trade in the souks.
One of the largest souks is Souk Semmarine, which sells everything from brightly coloured bejewelled sandals and slippers and leather pouffes to jewellery and kaftans. Souk Ableuh contains stalls which specialize in lemons, chilis, capers, pickles, green, red, and black olives, and mint, a common ingredient of Moroccan cuisine and tea. Similarly, Souk Kchacha specializes in dried fruit and nuts, including dates, figs, walnuts, cashews and apricots. Rahba Qedima contains stalls selling hand-woven baskets, natural perfumes, knitted hats, scarves, tee shirts, Ramadan tea, ginseng, and alligator and iguana skins. Criee Berbiere, to the northeast of this market, is noted for its dark Berber carpets and rugs. Souk Siyyaghin is known for its jewellery, and Souk Smata nearby is noted for its extensive collection of babouches and belts. Souk Cherratine specializes in leatherware, and Souk Belaarif sells modern consumer goods. Souk Haddadine specializes in ironware and lanterns.
Ensemble Artisanal is a government-run complex of small arts and crafts which offers a range of leather goods, textiles and carpets. Young apprentices are taught a range of crafts in the workshop at the back of this complex.
City walls and gates
The ramparts of Marrakesh, which stretch for some 19 kilometres (12 mi) around the medina of the city, were built by the Almoravids in the 12th century as protective fortifications. The walls are made of a distinct orange-red clay and chalk, giving the city its nickname as the “red city”; they stand up to 19 feet (5.8 m) high and have 20 gates and 200 towers along them. Bab Agnaou was built in the 12th century during the Almohad dynasty. The Berber name Agnaou, like Gnaoua, refers to people of Sub-Saharan African origin (cf. Akal-n-iguinawen – land of the black). The gate was called Bab al Kohl (the word kohl also meaning “black”) or Bab al Qsar (palace gate) in some historical sources. The corner-pieces are embellished with floral decorations. This ornamentation is framed by three panels marked with an inscription from the Quran in Maghrebi script using foliated Kufic letters, which were also used in Al-Andalus. Bab Agnaou was renovated and its opening reduced in size during the rule of sultan Mohammed ben Abdallah. Bab Aghmat is located east of the Jewish and Muslim cemeteries, and is near the tomb of Ali ibn Yusuf. Bab Berrima with its solid towers stands near the Badi Palace. Bab er Robb (meaning “Lord’s gate”) is a southern exit from the city, near Bab Agnaou. Built in the 12th century, it provides access to roads leading to the mountain towns of Amizmiz and Asni. Bab el Khémis, situated in the medina’s northeastern corner, is one of the city’s main gates and features a man-made spring.
The Menara gardens are located to the west of the city, at the gates of the Atlas mountains. They were built around 1130 by the Almohad ruler Abd al-Mu’min. The name menara derives from the pavilion with its small green pyramid roof (menzeh). The pavilion was built during the 16th century Saadi dynasty and renovated in 1869 by sultan Abderrahmane of Morocco, who used to stay here in summertime.
The pavilion and a nearby artificial lake are surrounded by orchards and olive groves. The lake was created to irrigate the surrounding gardens and orchards using a sophisticated system of underground channels called a qanat. The basin is supplied with water through an old hydraulic system which conveys water from the mountains located approximately 30 kilometres (19 mi) away from Marrakesh. There is also a small amphitheater and a symmetrical pool where films are screened. Carp fish can be seen in the pond.
The Majorelle Garden, on Avenue Yacoub el Mansour, was at one time the home of the landscape painter Jacques Majorelle. Famed designer Yves Saint Laurent bought and restored the property, which features a stele erected in his memory, and the Museum of Islamic Art, which is housed in a dark blue building. The garden, open to the public since 1947, has a large collection of plants from five continents including cacti, palms and bamboo.
The Agdal Gardens, located south of the medina and also built in the 12th century, are royal orchards surrounded by pise walls. Measuring 400 hectares (990 acres) in size, the gardens feature citrus, apricot, pomegranate, olive and cypress trees. Sultan Moulay Hassan’s harem resided at the Dar al Baida pavilion, which was situated within these gardens. This site is also known for its historic swimming pool, where a Sultan is said to have drowned.
The Koutoubia Gardens are situated behind the Koutoubia Mosque. They feature orange and palm trees, and are frequented by storks. The Mamounia Gardens, more than 100 years old and named after Prince Moulay Mamoun, have olive and orange trees as well as a variety of floral displays.