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Marrakech – a city suspended in time

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Marrakech – a city suspended in time

Nestled in the foothills of the mighty Atlas mountains, the famed city of Marrakech is an enduring reminder of a city that has long controlled trans-Saharan trade. Juliet Highet reports.

Morocco has long clung to its cultural integrity in the face of numerous onslaughts. It is the strength and persistence of tradition, both Berber and Arab, that makes the country so extraordinarily fascinating. Of all the cities of Morocco, Marrakech is the one that most forcibly thrusts the visitor into antiquity, as much by its atmosphere as by its architecture, and despite the fact that it has a thriving industrial sector with a rising population, standing at about half a million. Unlike Fez, so long its rival as the capital of Morocco, Marrakech also exists very much in the present. Since pre-recorded history, it has been the most important market of southern Morocco, and remains its administrative centre.

Marrakech is the northern terminal of the great Saharan caravan routes, and it throbs with the atmosphere of an ancient Berber city. Standing as the outposts of Moroccan Berberland are two vast oases. In the northwest, its outlet to the Atlantic, is Marrakech. In the southeast, at the terminal point of the Sultan’s Highway, is the Taffilalet. Marrakech is claimed as capital by mountain and desert Berber alike, where tribesmen from all over the Atlas and beyond congregate to trade, gossip and relax. It is the closest the nomad has ever come to settling down, his one attempt at urbanisation; and although he has contrived to create a city – digging artesian wells, storing water, expanding the palm and fruit groves, building and re-building the red-brick clay walls which the desert winds ceaselessly erode – the Berber has never quite succeeded in being a city-dweller. For the essence of Marrakech is of a desert camp, absolutely typified by its extraordinary central square – the Djemaa el Fna.

Although the successive Arab invasions have left some stunning ancient buildings, evidence of the arts and worldly refinement, as well as labyrinthine souks, the city is still a glorified Ksar, a tented settlement, whose temporary status has survived into permanency. A faint hum roars from Marrakech over the desert, the life-breath of one of the great cities of Africa. From afar, the city seems drowned in a pinkish haze, and it is called La Rouge, the Red One, after the laterite soil that characterises its buildings and in particular its 12th century city walls. Marrakech is red, brown, pink and all hues in between. These colours and the shadows thrown by the intricate plasterwork of the city gates set within the walls, are best seen at sunset, when the light presents the city at its evocative zenith, playing dramatic tricks with the arches and minarets. 

At the heart of this Berber city, where southern tribes-people have always brought in their goods, spent their money and found entertainment, is the square called Djemaa el Fna. It is in essence no more than an open space in the centre of the city, but as the inheritor of the circled enclosures of so many tented camps, activities in the Square have become a long-established ritual. The Square is a continuing circus, recalling a medieval fair, where shifting circles of onlookers gather round groups of acrobats, drummers and pipe musicians, dancers, storytellers and comedians.

Nobody is entirely sure when or how the fabled Djemaa el Fna came into being, nor even what its name means. The usual translation is “Assembly of the Dead”, a suitably epic epithet which refers to the public display here of the heads of rebels and criminals. The Bled es Siba, of which Marrakech is the heartland, has always been a trouble-spot for the rulers of Morocco, a land of fortified villages who owe more allegiance to their Caid,
still sometimes a tribal chieftain, than to the king’s temporal authority, let alone to the Qur’anic law, the Sharia. In the evenings and particularly at Ramadan, a motley crowd mingles in this huge Square – pompous-looking city folk, aloof mountain Berbers, merchants, red-fezed and white-robed Moghaznis of the town guard, snake-charmers with scorpions crawling on their noses, fancifully-dressed water-sellers who pose for camera-snapping tourists, and effeminate boy dancers from the Chleuh region south of the Atlas, who perform gyrating, erotic dances. 

The acrobats, who are itinerants from the Tazcroualt, have for decades performed at European circuses, though their presentations are never so spectacular as here in the Square where their fellow Berbers will hiss if their multiple somersaults and strange contortions do not succeed. Clowns mingle with serious child boxers, while melancholy trained monkeys circle, tugging on their chains.

Gradually night descends on the seething Square. The Djemaa el Fna begins to empty and all that remains is a haze of disturbed dust, through which filters the high-pitched call to prayer, echoes rebounding from minaret to minaret around the rose-red city. As night settles over Marrakech, the faint glow of campfires dots the plain outside, where nomads have pitched their tents. Far away to the south, a pink line illuminates the snowy peaks of the Atlas Mountains.

The setting, the atmosphere, is everything in Marrakech, which to the visitor can appear closed and even sinister. According to a macabre legend, the predecessors of today’s Muezzin of the famous Koutubia Mosque, were always blinded before they were given the office of calling the faithful. Five times a day they stepped out onto the highest platform of this elegant blue-tiled minaret, two hundred feet up above the mosque, but when it was discovered that from this elevated position they could see into the courtyard of the Sultan’s harem, the Muezzins were allowed to see no more.

On a clear morning, for the rest of us, the Koutubia is visible for miles, the focus of every approach to the city, at nearly seventy metres in height, and the only really dramatic architectural feature of the Djemaa el Fna. The Koutubia is the oldest of the three great Almohad towers, the others being in Rabat and Sevilla, and certainly the most complete. Its proportions of 1:5 ratio of width to height established classic Moroccan design, while its scale is extraordinary, rising from the low city buildings, and dominating the surrounding plains.

Work on the Koutubia minaret was begun shortly after the Almohad conquest of the city, around 1150, but it was not completed until the Sultan Yaccoub el Mansour took over from between 1184 to 99. His wife offered the three copper-gilt balls at the summit, which are thought to have been originally of gold, presenting these balls as a penance for breaking three hours of the Ramadan fast. Otherwise, the mosque and minaret display many of the features which were to become typical of later Moroccan architecture – the wide band of ceramic inlay near the top, the pyramid-shaped castellations of Merlons above, the use of Darj W Ktarf (fleur de lis), plus the alternation of patterning on different facets.

Though Marrakech may be a Berber city, Islamic architecture is at its apogee here and in Fez – glorious achievements of complex mathematical patterns of stone lattice-work in interior courtyards, contrasting with the high exterior walls, which provide privacy for all buildings, institutional or domestic. The main public buildings are the mosques, the royal palaces and the Medressas – schools or colleges attached to mosques. There are marvellous places to visit in Marrakech, but not so many that one is oppressed by the prospect of too much sightseeing. One of the most delicately beautiful historic buildings is the Medressa Ben Youssef, right in the heart of the Souk, where neither college nor market appear to have changed since the 16th century when the Medressa was constructed. Students of religious law and the Qur’an lived, worked and slept in small cell-like rooms, overlooking a tiled central courtyard with a fountain.

This Medressa has an indescribable atmosphere, quiet, studious and devout; it is also the most important monument in the northern half of the Medina or old city, at the top of the main area of the souks and arguably the finest building in the city, after the Koutubia minaret. One of the largest buildings of the Medina and preceded by a rare open space, the Ben Youssef was a Merenid foundation, established by the Sultan Abou el Hassan in the 14th century. It was, however, almost completely rebuilt by the Saadians, and it is this dynasty’s intricate Andalusian-influenced art which has left its stamp. As with the slightly later Saadian tombs, no surface of the architecture is left undecorated, and the overall quality of its craftsmanship, whether in woodcarving, stucco or tiles, is startlingly rich. That this was possible in 16th century Marrakech, after a period in which the city was reduced to near ruin and the country to tribal anarchy, is all the more remarkable.

Parts of the Medressa have exact parallels in the Alhambra Palace in Grenada, so it seems likely that Muslim Spanish architects and artisans were directly employed here. Imported craftspeople were so respected in medieval Marrakech, that the chronicler El Ifrani wrote about the construction of the El Badi Palace in the 16th century: “El Mansour made workmen come from all the different countries and awarded his workers very generously. He even paid attention to the entertainment of their children, so that the artisans might devote themselves entirely to their work without being distracted by any other preoccupation.” 

The state opening of the El Badi Palace was a fabulous occasion attended by ambassadors from several European powers and by all the sheiks and cai of the kingdom. Surveying his efforts, its builder Ahmed el Mansour, turned to his court jester for an opinion on the new palace. “Sidi”, the man replied, “this will make a magnificent ruin.” And ruin it is now, reduced throughout to its red pisé walls, though enough remains of the Badi to suggest that its name – the Incomparable – was not immodest. 

It took the next great Moroccan builder, Moulay Ismail, over 10 years of systematic work to strip the Palace of everything of value; even so, there is a lingering sense of grandeur and luxury. The scale of the sunken gardens and vast pool is unrivalled in Marrakech, and the remaining traces of tiles and plaster evoke a brilliance of decoration arguably as remarkable as the Saadian tombs of the same period. 

Far from pampering his imported craftspeople, Moulay Ismail beat and starved the
workmen, burying them in the walls where they fell. After he had destroyed the Badi Palace, he sealed in the Saadian tombs, which lay half-ruined and half-forgotten until the beginning of this century.
Now restored, these magnificent mausoleums dazzle the contemporary visitor with sparkling marble, in their garden setting behind high walls.

In the closing decades of the last century, many palaces and splendid mansions were constructed in Marrakech, of which undoubtedly the most ambitious and extravagant was the El Bahia Palace. Following the tradition of the times, the Grand Vizier Si Ahmed Ben Moussa was not just shrewd and willful, but also cruel; and to add an extra frisson – ran a harem for 47 wives.

Originally a slave, he had risen to massive power in the Shereefian kingdom. He began the Bahia in 1894, but now it seems sadly empty and echoing, its huge courtyard around the harem, barren of plants, water or life, surrounded by the little bare rooms of the many wives. It was not the custom of the wealthy people of Marrakech to build country houses; rather they recreated the concept of sophisticated urban life in miniature in the “countryside”, in the large gardens they created on the outskirts of the city. They would take superb picnics out to small but exquisite pavilions they had built on the side of vast water tanks; which in fact watered the gardens. These were never formally laid-out flower gardens in the European tradition but extensive fruit and palm groves, as refreshing a change nowadays from steamy Marrakech, as they must have been to the pre-colonial sultans.

Largest of the gardens is the Agdal, watered by an amazing system of wells and underground channels, which reach to the base of the Atlas in the Ourika valley, and which date in part to the earliest foundations of the city. The gardens of today were laid out in the 17th century, enclosed by walls with ramparts, and once reserved for the sultan and his household, to enjoy picnics in the Menseh or summer pavilion, or boating parties on the huge water tanks.

Smaller are the Menara Gardens, with an elegant 19th century pavilion, built, it is rumoured, for sultanate dalliances. And there is a certain raffish dilettante charm about it, with its delicate formalised floral decoration. Approached through groves of orange, lemon and olive trees, the Menara is surrounded by cypresses.

A small botanical garden called the Majorelle Garden or Bou Saf Saf provides the modern visitor with an altogether surrealist experience, for within this tropical garden, filled with cacti and palms and underplanted with bright coral-coloured geraniums and orange nasturtiums, all the buildings and even the low walls surrounding flower beds are painted the most brilliant, eye-scorching cobalt blue. Created by Louis Majorelle in the 1920s, the little house, pavilion, water tank and not forgetting the huge handsome ceramic pots containing plants carefully labelled for the botanist – scream with this totally unexpected colour.

After falling into neglect, the gardens were restored by the French designer Yves Saint Laurent, who owned the house next door. So perhaps it all goes to show that Marrakech, though suspended in time in its Berber atmosphere, yet has the capacity to absorb and provide rich experiences from the curious things that have happened to it, in its long and vivid history.  

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