Mythical Marrakech – The Great Palaces of the Medina

Mythical Marrakech – The Great Palaces of the Medina

Marrakech was in turn the capital of both the Almoravid (1056 to 1147) and Saadi (1509 to 1659) dynasties. While we owe the very existence of the city to the Almoravid rulers, very few actual structures remain of their legacy. The Saadian, on the other hand, left us one of the most unique architectural treasures in the city: an opulent palace for the dead.

The Saadian Tombs

The older eastern mausoleum (right) was built against the outer walls of the Kasbah Mosque.

The final resting place of the Saadi dynasty is a vast necropolis housing over 200 tombs spread throughout a shaded flower garden anchored by two major mausoleums.

 At the eastern end of the site, the oldest mausoleum adjoins the southern wall of the ancient Kasbah Mosque (circa 12th century A.D.). It was built between 1557 and 1574 by the second Saadi sultan, Moulay Abdallah al-Ghalib, to honor his father Muhammad al-Sheikh, the founder of the dynasty, who was killed in 1557. Abdallah himself was later buried next to his father in 1574, as were his two successors.

Archway to the tomb of Lalla Mas’uda.

However, what makes the Saadian Tombs one of the most visited monuments in Marrakech is the western side of the necropolis, build by the last of the dynasty’s ruler’s Sultan Ahmed al Mansour Ed Dahbi (1578–1603.). He first commissioned the mausoleum of his father Muhammad al-Sheik and his mother, the concubine Lalla Mas’uda, and then later on his own after-life palace.

Crowds file by the entrance to the tombs of Muhammad al-Sheikh and Lalla Mas’uda.

 

Muqarnas archway entrance to the Chamber of the Twelve Columns.

He spared no expense, especially for the latter, importing Italian Carrara marble and gilding honeycomb muqarnas(decorative plasterwork) with pure gold to make the Chamber of 12 Pillars a suitably glorious mausoleum. And he applied a definite pecking order even in death, keeping major princes close by in the Chamber of Three Niches while relegating to garden plots some 150 chancellors and members of the royal household.

While al Mansour died in splendor in 1603, a few decades later the Alaouite dynasty succeeded the Saadian, and the new ruler, Sultan Moulay Ismail was eager to remove all traces of the former ruling family. He ordered the necropolis sealed, leaving only one concealed entrance, a small passageway through the wall from the adjoining Kasbah Mosque. And the Saadian Tombs faded from public awareness until they were “re-discovered” by the French in 1917. The site was subsequently restored to its original frandeur and opened to visitors who now descend upon it in droves.

El Badi Palace

Storks stand guard over the ruins of el Badi Palace.

Another of al Mansur’s grand commissions, el Badi Palace didn’t fare so well. The immense complex that once boasted 360 rooms now stands as a magnificent ruin. The first thing that catches visitors’ attention when entering what remains of the palace is not that its design was influenced by the Alhambra in Granada, but rather the number of storks nesting on top of its ramparts.

 

El Badi Palace remains an imposing ruin.

Paved in gold and turquoise tiles and decorated throughout with Italian marble during the reign of al Mansur, el Badi was at the time the most impressive palace in the western reaches of the Muslim world. But in 1690, Sultan Moulay Ismael stripped it bare to adorn his own palace in Meknes, some 350 kilometers (220 miles) northeast of Marrakech. Today, the vast courtyard with its four sunken gardens and reflecting pools can only hint at its former majesty. Although now a mere shell, el Badi still overwhelms with its massive proportions.  And steep stairways still lead to the top of the ramparts, offering unique views of the roofs and towers of the Medina and the Atlas mountains.

The Bahia Palace

The Bahia remains unique for its specacular courtyards.

When Si Moussa, the powerful Grand Vizier of Sultan Hassan I, built the Bahia in the 1860’s, he envisioned the grandest palace of its time. A lofty goal that only came close to fruition with Si Moussa’s son, Ahmed ben Moussa (a.k.a. Ba Ahmed) who rose to even higher prominence than his father, serving as Grand Vizier and regent of Morocco during the reign of the child Sultan Abd al-Aziz. 

The Bahai Palace is a maze of harmonious  interial passages.

Ba Ahmed expanded upon the existing palace, bringing in a renowned architect and some of the finest craftsmen in the country to create a lavishly decorated 160-room palace to house his four wives and 24 concubines. Spread across some height hectares (20 acres), of landscaped gardens and lofty courtyards, the complex still still impresses with its magnificent decor, and is considered one of the finest examples of Moorish-Andalusian architecture in Morocco.

The Bahia Palace has retained its elaborate interior fittings,

 After Ba Ahmed’s his death in 1900, however, the palace was looted en masse. His concubines swiftly took their share before Sultan Abd al-Aziz (the former child Sultan) carted off all the remaining furnitures and removable contents to his own palace. However, by looting standards, it was all fairly restrained, and the buildings themselves were undamaged. Although the royal family still occasionally uses the Bahia for official occasions, most of it is now open to visitors. The public rooms remain empty, which only allows the splendor of the palace to come through all the more.

Dar Si Said

Dar Si Said features a lovely internal garden.

Located just north of the Bahia Palace, Dar Si Said, also now known as the Museum of Moroccan Arts, was formerly the residence of Ba Ahmed’s brother Sisi Said, The collection of the museum is considered one of the finest in Morocco. It includes jewelry from the High Atlas, the Anti Atlas and the extreme south; carpets from the Haouz and the High Atlas; oil lamps from Taroudant; blue pottery from Safi and green pottery from Tamgroute and leatherwork from Marrakesh.

Thr painted ceilings are some of the best in the city.

The lovely central garden is laid out in classic Moroccan styel, and the carved and painted ceilings on the top floor are considered the finest example of painted ceilings in the city. The museum also features some fine wooden screens and frames recovered from the Bahia palace.

The sprawling el Badi complex has retained its four sunken gardens.

 

Good to Know

Marrakech is located in central Morroco, in the foothills of the Atlas Mountains and a few hours away from the edge of the Sahara desert.

  • Getting there — Marrakech has a modern, well organized international airport with direct scheduled flights from Paris, London, and a number of other major European cities, as well as Casablanca, Morocco’s largest city. The airport is located about six kilometers (4 miles) from the medina, and taxis are readily available throughout the day – but it is prudent to clearly set the fare with the driver before getting into the cab. A better option is to arrange for a pre-paid pick up through your hotel or riad.
  • Getting around— there is only one way to fully explore the medina, and it’s on foot
  • Visiting —The Saadian Tombs are open daily from 9:00 am to 4:45 pm. El Badi  is open daily from 9:00 am to 5:00 pm. The Bahia Palacei s open daily from 9:00 am to 4:30 pm and  Dar Si Saild is open daily Wednesday through Monday from 9:00 am to 4:45 pm. Closed on Tuesday.

Location, location, location!

Medina, Marrakech

The Gem of Morocco – Mythical Marrakech

The Gem of Morocco – Mythical Marrakech

While the foothills of the Atlas Mountains in what is now central Morocco were inhabited by Berber farmers since Neolithic times, it was not until the 11th century A.D. that Marrakech began, first as little more than an oasis Kasbah (fortress) founded by the local Almoravid ruler. But it quickly prospered into the region’s most important trading settlement for camel trains coming across the Sahara Desert from Timbuktu on their way to the coast with their precious cargos of gold, spices and ivory.

Jemaa el-Fnaa Square has been the hub of trade and entertainment since the 11th century.

The Medina (walled city) soon developed into a center of commerce and culture, and the imperial city of several successive ruling dynasties. A sprawling labyrinth of riads (traditional homes), and souks (covered artisan markets) spread in the shadow of its opulent palaces. 

In recent decades, Marrakech has also gained the distinction of being the country’s most popular tourist destination, with a million travelers flocking there each year. And it’s easy to see why: with its centuries old fusion of Arabian, African and European influences, the gem of Morocco fascinates with its exotic allure.

Finding Your Riad

The Medina is a warren of narrow back alleys.

The best way to soak in the unique atmosphere of Marrakech and discover its historic and cultural treasures is to stay in the Medina. To this day, its ancient  riads, the secluded, traditional houses built around inner courtyards, remain home to about 200,000 people, a fifth of the city’s population. They also seem to host the same number of tourists. In recent decades, with over 800 riads restored to modern hospitality standards and now registered as guest residences, the word has become synonymous with boutique accommodation.

The terrace at Dar Habiba overlooks  neighborhood terraces.

Most properties are small – just six to eight rooms, usually with an inviting rooftop terrace. Nearly all offer personalized service and an ideal way for tourists to get in touch with Moroccan culture. They are also very much in demand, so it is prudent to plan well ahead. One of the fun parts of planning this Marrakech escape was finding our riad. While it took several tries, we ended up with just the right one for us.

The House of Friends

Life at Riad Dar Habiba is centered around a serene patio.

Concealed behind a typically unassuming doorway at the corner of one of the many culs-de-sac of the quiet Mellah, the old Jewish Quarter originally created in the 16th century, Dar Habiba (Arabic for friend) was a serene retreat centered around a large patio, complete with white marble dipping pool, gurgling fountain, and an inviting bhou (lounging nook). Our upper-floor rooms opened onto a gallery overlooking the patio. Decorated in contemporary Moroccan style with pale plaster walls, Berber accent pieces and throw rugs on the terra-cotta floor, our rooms were a haven of tranquility just a short walk from all the chaos of the  major attractions of the Medina.

Only donkey carts and motorcycle can make it beyond the entrance of the Medina.

But what turned our stay at Dar Habiba into a superb Marrakech experience was the unfailing attention of the staff to our every needs and comfort, which began even before we checked in. We had pre-arranged with them a transfer from the airport. However, cars can only get you as far as official drop-off points at the edge of the Medina. It’s on foot after that through back alleys only wide enough for motorcycles and donkey carts, and with few discernible street addresses. Mercifully, a porter had been dispatched to meet our cab. He piled our luggage onto his hand cart and took off at a trot through the pandemonium, trusting us to keep up. Which we did, aware that he only had a clue as to where we were going.

At Dar Habiba, the bhou is our favorite gathering spot.

We reached Dar Habiba within minutes, a bit dazed and winded, to the warm welcome of Rashid, the onsite manager. We were immediately settled within the plump pillows of the bhou, and over glasses of freshly brewed mint tea, introduced to the details of life at the Riad and the bewildering city beyond its thick sheltering walls. After settling into our rooms at leisure, we reconvened at the bhou, which instantly became our favorite perch, for another round of mint tea. Then, pleasantly mellow and armed with very explicit directions from Rashid, we were ready to jump into the bedlam we’d only glimpsed at on the way in and head for the legendary main square, Jemaa-el-Fnaa.

Jemaa-el-Fnaa

Jemaa el-Fnaa is the pulsing heart of the Medina.

No one is sure of the precise meaning of the name Jemaa el-Fnaa, the vast triangular square at the entrance of the Medina. It could be “Place of the Vanished Mosque,” or the favorite contender,  “Assembly of the Dead,” since justice was once meted out here, and heads of executed criminals were set on spikes as a warning to others. What is certain is that “La Place,” as the legendary square is known to Marrakechis, has been the hub of trade and entertainment since 1050 AD, the frenzied best and worst of Marrakech.

Fresh-squeezed juice sellers are a constant feature.

It was afternoon when we reach it, the time when it was morphing from its daytime marketplace activities into its nigh life persona. The sellers of cheap trinkets were folding their blankets. The henna tattoo ladies were putting away their syringes and laminated folders of patterns. The herbalists touting potions to heal all ills and the itinerant dentists sitting on plastic chairs behind displays of dentures and saucers of the teeth they’ve successfully pulled were closing shop. The reedy whine of the snake charmer’s flute was beginning to fade. Only the fruit carts were standing firm, still doing a brisk business of delicious, fresh-squeezed orange juice at a mere 10 Dirhams (one U.S. Dollar) a cup.

The spice market occupies a corner of Jemaa el-Fnaa.

Now, young men trundled across the square to set their up their portable kitchens, plank benches and trestle tables. Soon the smoke rose from hundreds of barbecues, and countless food stalls began doling out a steady stream of kebabs, filling the air with the mouth-watering aromas of this immense open-air eatery, while Gnawa (North African spiritual music) musicians, acrobats and fortune tellers entertained the crowds. We enjoyed the show for a while before drifting off. As frequent visitors to Africa, we have long learned to keep questionable street food out of our travel menu. We headed instead for the nearby Koutoubia Mosque.

Koutoubia Mosque

The Koutoubia Mosque is especially spectacular at dusk.

Towering 253 ft (77 meters) over the Jemma el-Fnaa, the Koutoubia Mosque is the most important in Marrakech and the unmistakable point of reference of the city. Built at the height of the Islamic Golden Age, is it exceptionally ornate. Originally completed during the Almovad Dynasty in the 12th century, it is the oldest and most complete structure remaining from this era. Designed in cooperation between Marrakechi and Andalusian architects, it is a prototypical monument of Moroccan-Andalusian architecture – and a twin of Seville’s Girarlda. Like all mosques in Morocco, it is closed to non-muslims, but visitors are welcome to walk around its vast gardens.

A hearty Tajine dinner on the roof terrace is a delicious end to our first day in Marrakech.

Now that we has found our bearings, it was a mere at 15-minute stroll from here back to Dar Habiba, along the lively souk of  Rue Riad Zitoun el Kdim. A table had been set for us on the rooftop terrace and our delicious pre-ordered lamb tagine (traditional dish slow-cooked in conical clay pot) meal with all the trimmings awaited. Afterward, we lingered long into the evening under the starry velvet sky, enjoying the view of the rooftops of the Medina in the moonlight, and the occasional strains of Gnawa drifting on the spice-scented night air.

Jemaa-el-Fnaa is the traditional hub of trade and entertainment in Marrakech.

Good to Know

  • Getting there – Marrakech has a modern, well organized international airport with direct scheduled flights from Paris, London, and a number of other major European cities, as well as Morroco’s largest city of Casablanca. The airport is located about six kilometers (four miles) from the Medina, and taxis are readily available throughout the day – but make sure you clearly set the fare with the driver before you get in. A far better option is to arrange for a pre-paid pick up through your hotel or riad. 
  • Getting around – the only one way explore the Medina is on foot. But beware of bicycles and scooters that zip around the narrow alleys as though they have been granted exclusive right of way. The surest way to get where you want to go is to ask direction from the person in charge at your riad.  (n.b. Rashid gave excellent directions.)  Still, expect to get occasionally lost while you meander through the confusing labyrinth of the Medina, constantly distracted by the bustle of Marrakech’s everyday life. It’s what you came to experience, so keep meandering and you will soon find your bearings again.
  • Staying – Dar Habiba is ideally located in the quiet Mellah neighborood, within a fifteen-minute walking radius of all the main Medina historic sites (La Place, the Koutoubia Mosque, Saadian Tombs, Bahia Palace, El Badi Palace, etc.) and a mere five minutes away from the souk of Rue Riad Zitoun el Kdim. We chose it for its location but will return at the first opportunity for the comfort of its accommodations and most of all its attentive personalize hospitality.  Contact info : tel. +44 20 7570 0336 (or toll free from the US. + 1-800-845-0810), e-mail: Reservations.

 

A Few Souvenirs

Location, location, location!

Marrakech Medina