Marrakesh is a former imperial city in western Morocco. A major economic centre home to mosques, palaces and gardens, its Medina is a densely packed medieval city dating back to the Berber Empire, with labyrinthine alleyways where thriving souks stock traditional artisan crafts.
A Closed Courtyard Currency
Previously the homes of wealthy merchants and traders, many of Morocco’s Riads have today been converted into luxury guest houses for a flourishing tourist industry. Located within the walls of the Medina, their distinctive Zellij mosaics embellish Eden enclosures and lost paradises; the word Riad or Ryad is derived from the Arabic word رياض, which stands for garden.
Geometric shapes and calligraphic quotes from the Quran adorn the plaster and wood covered walls. Unlike regular buildings that have openings facing the exterior, Riad windows face the interior instead. This introspection not only provides greater privacy, and emphasises Islamic conceptions of intimacy, but also provides greater protection from local weather changes.
Similarly, the dirham is a closed currency, which means that it can only be obtained once you arrive. Morocco is a multilingual nation, where many residents speak French, Arabic, and other local languages, and its value system reflects this. The Arabic word santim is centime in French, while the plural santimat becomes centimes.
The dirham is also the official currency of the United Arab Emirates, and is a subdivision of the local currency in Libya and Jordan (the dinar) and in Qatar (the riyal). However you can distinguish the Moroccan dirham from the UAE dirham as the words Bank al-Maghrib are on the front of every banknote – the UAE dirham comes from the Central Bank of UAE. Dirham coins can be harder to tell apart.
Reaching further back, the Arabic word dirham comes from the Ancient Greek word drachma – a derivation from conquest and trade. At the height of the Byzantine Empire around 600 AD, the Greek realm stretched across Northern Africa all the way to Persia. The drachma made its way along here into what would later become the Ottoman Empire. But as power changed hands, so did currency. Until 1882, Morocco still used copper, silver, and gold to mint coins – the silver coins were called dirhams.
The dirham retained its status as the second-most valuable currency after the Moroccan rial came into play – which lasted until 1921 when France invaded Morocco. The 1942 movie Casablanca took place during the French occupation: when the franc, not the dirham, was the official form of value. It was only after the Moroccan independence in 1960 that the dirham returned to the scene.
Generally, cash is required for Morocco’s marketplaces, independent shops, and for emergencies, as well as in locations outside the major cities. You should be able to use your credit card or debit card at most mid-to-large hotels, luxury restaurants, and malls, which typically accept Visa and Mastercard. Cards such as Revolut are also a good option as they frequently offer better exchange rates and security. The easiest way to get cash is to use an ATM, as these fees are often lower than those at the currency exchange office.
Masterpieces Of The Oral And Intangible Heritage Of Humanity
Jemaa el- Fna Square is one of the city’s top attractions. The cultural importance of its intoxicating atmosphere inspired UNESCO to create its “Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity.” When locals began fighting to protect their traditions in the face of growing economic pressures, Jemaa el-Fna became the first place to gain Masterpiece status under UNESCO, helping to promote and safeguard its lineage.
Jemaa el-Fna dates back to the founding of Marrakesh by the Almoravids in 1062 and later grew in importance when the Almohads took the city in 1147, renovating the square and the city around it. For almost a thousand years, the square has functioned as a market and gathering place at the heart of the city, where fearsome rulers once held public decapitations to keep their subjects in line.
Today, the square attracts the entire spectrum of life in Marrakesh: with locals of varying social and ethnic backgrounds, and tourists from around the world. In the morning, stall owners set up their stands selling orange juice, spices, traditional medicines, mint leaves, and snails.
During the day, the charming sound of flutes slithers across the square, while monkey trainers send crowds bananas; but once the sun sets, Berber musicians and Gnaoua dancers begin their star-lit performances, while acrobats and henna artists vie for attention, with storytellers and poets who weave their words through the air.
As the Spanish poet and novelist Juan Goytisolo shared: “The spectacle of Jemaa el Fna is repeated daily and each day it is different. Everything changes – voices, sounds, gestures, the public which sees, listens, smells, tastes, touches. The oral tradition is framed by one much vaster – that which we can call the intangible. The Square, as a physical space, shelters such a rich tradition.”
New Town Eucalyptus Street Art
Michelangelo looked at a block of marble and saw the statue David. Edward Leedskalnin looked at South Florida’s coral bedrock and saw a castle. Graffiti artists looked at the Berlin Wall and saw the world’s highest-profile blank canvas. Whether by a classically trained oil painter or a prisoner scratching figures into a concrete wall – whatever the medium, art, to paraphrase Jeff Goldblum’s character in Jurassic Park, finds a way. In Marrakech, a group of local artists found a tree-lined street and told their own a tale.
A man by the name of Moulayhafid Taqouraite and his accomplices have carved, painted, and burned an eclectic series of designs into the tall Eucalyptus trees lining a street in the New Town district of Marrakech; making their mark on the city in a bold but endearing way.
Anything less enchanting than what they created might have been considered an unfortunate defacement of public beauty, but the result tends to silence potential critics. Deep etchings, bold contrasts and intricate details suffice as evidence of a labour of love, not mischief (though you need a touch of the latter for a project like this).
The trees-turned-canvas are often referred to as dead tree sculptures, which some of them definitely are, but plenty are still living and growing today – perhaps as testament to their resilience, but equally, as a metaphor for the symbiotic nature of life and art. Either way, the trees aren’t going anywhere anytime soon, and neither we hope, are the ‘vandals’.
Musée Tiskiwin’s Treasures
For something a little different, look no further than Dutch anthropologist Bert Flint’s collection of cultural artefacts, all housed in a finely restored Riad. Once ranked Morocco’s most charming (small) museum, Musée Tiskiwin is in a world of its own. Away from the frenzied souks, but close enough to the popular Mellah and Kasbah districts, few tourists know this wonderful attraction exists.
Inconspicuous from the outside, the mezzanine’s courtyard is filled with trees ripe with mandarins. Here you can take a seat in the shade and if you’re lucky, have a sip of thé á la menthe. Only a few of the curated descriptions in English match the associated exhibits. Piecing together the text and exploring which captions relate to which artefacts adds to the museum’s charm. (Note that the museum doesn’t automatically display curated text, you have to request an English copy on arrival).
The imagination wanders as you retrace the old caravan routes where Berber tribes traveled for centuries across the Sahara, ultimately headed for Mali and Timbuktu. Upstairs is where the tour begins. Exhibits are filled with carpets, brooches, and tents of Amazigh culture. The Amazigh (or Berbers) lived in western Maghreb for thousands of years before the Arabs arrived during the 7th century. They often formed communities nestled in the Atlas foothills.
The leatherwork on display is especially memorable. It’s a specialty among the peoples of the Sahel, and is viewed as almost sacred. The leatherwork on display was mainly used as gifts or was offered to community elders. The tour winds through rooms dedicated to Algeria and Mauritania, and reminds visitors that these weren’t just vast stretches of sand, but fiefdoms and battlegrounds for warring tribes. Various accessories such as jewellery and headwear are sprinkled across the museum, symbolising the cultural diversity of the region.
Another notable feature of the museum is the layered history of Moroccan Jews, which although touched on in other museums, is addressed here in anthropological detail. Included are notes on the fine silverwork and crafts of the Jewish people, along with how they co-existed with the Berbers – sometimes they even self-identified as such. For a final splash of colour, magnificent are tapestries on display. Bert Flint spares no detail.
Secrets Of The Saadian Tombs
Deliberately hidden for centuries, the secret Saadian Tombs were eventually uncovered in 1917. The royal necropolis on which the Saadian Tombs were built was likely in use since the beginning of the 14th century. But it was during the reign of Ahmed el-Mansour, the Saadi Sultan from 1578 to 1603, that these tombs obtained a far more prominent and lavish status.
Ahmed el-Mansour’s father, Mohammed ash-Sheikh, was buried at the site after his murder in 1557. Not long after, Ahmed el-Mansour began to expand and embellish the entire burial ground, including the construction of two magnificent mausoleums: for his father, his mother, his own descendants and, of course, himself.
His own mausoleum, the Hall of Twelve Columns, was built from imported Italian Carrara marble, with gilding honeycomb muqarnas, a type of ornamented vaulting, decorated with gold. He shares his mausoleum with some of his closest family members and descendants, including Princess Zorha, whose tomb carries the epitaph, “Here is the tomb of the noble lady, new moon, marvel of virtues.”
Between the two mausoleums and throughout the gardens lie many more tombs, including a prominent chamber for Ahmed el-Mansour’s mother, Lalla Messaouda, who was buried in 1591. In total, 66 princes and other prominent figures lie here, as well as more than 100 chancellors and wives, each resting closer to the Sultan’s mausoleum depending on his or her status. These include the graves of a number of trusted Jewish advisers, some of who, judging by their location, were highly valued by him.
The very existence of the Saadian Tombs was placed in doubt with the end of the Saadi Dynasty. Less than two decades after the end of Saadian rule, along came Moulay Ismail ibn Sharif, the second ruler of the Moroccan Alaouite dynasty, who reigned from 1672 to 1727.
Moulay Ismail, also known as the “Warrior King” and “The Bloodthirsty,” had a penchant for adorning his city walls with the heads of his victims, which totalled an estimated 30,000 at the time. He also had a fondness for concubines, which numbered around 2,000, and multiple wives (including, incidentally, an Irishwoman named Mrs. Shaw). In between torturing labourers and beheading servants, he managed to father 867 children (525 sons and 342 daughters), an achievement recognised by the Guinness World Records.
When he came to power, Moulay Ismail wanted to erase all evidence of the Saadi Dynasty. He set about destroying and stripping many of its greatest buildings, including the El Badi Palace. But when it came to the Saadian Tombs, he showed a surprising amount of restraint. Fearful of committing sacrilege by destroying a burial ground, he built a wall around the tombs, leaving only a small passage from the nearby Kasbah Mosque.
Thereafter, the Saadian Tombs lay untouched and neglected for more than two centuries, with the mausoleums attracting little more than weeds, stray cats and storks. It was only in 1917 that a French aerial photography survey sighted the ruins. The rediscovered tombs were promptly uncovered and restored, and soon opened to the public in all their former glory.
Plundering Bahia Palace
Built by Grand Viziers to be the greatest palace of its time, the Bahia Palace was later looted by the Sultan and then occupied by the French. The vast palace still sometimes hosts the Moroccan royal family, but is more often frequented by tourists who come to marvel at its fine architecture and intricate decorations. By looting standards, it was all fairly civilised, and the palace itself was undamaged, although visitors today will find most of the rooms empty.
This lack of furnishings doesn’t detract from its splendour. Spread over 20 acres with gardens, courtyards and 150 rooms (only some of which are accessible to the public), the palace impresses thanks to its finest examples of Andalusian and Moorish designs.
The rooms for wives and concubines have carved-cedar ceilings; salons are lined by stained-glass windows; and reception halls dazzle with their tiled mosaics and delicate stuccoworks. The palace harem is decorated with woven-silk panels and more stained-glass windows, while the huge Grand Courtyard stretches its marble-tiled surface between carved wooden galleries.
The American novelist Edith Wharton stayed at the palace during the Protectorate years: “They came, they built the Bahia, and it remains the loveliest and most fantastic of Moroccan palaces.”
Enlightening Ben Youssef Madrasa
The largest madrasa in Morocco, the Ben Youssef Madrasa once housed more than 900 students within its exquisite walls. Founded in the 14th century and later expanded, it ceased to function as an Islamic college in 1960, but remains one of the finest buildings in Marrakesh.
Initially a modest madrasa, it was later reconstructed during the Saadian Dynasty by the Abdallah al-Ghalib, the second Saadian sultan of Morocco. Upon the completion of these works in 1565, the Ben Youssef Madrasa stood as one of the largest and most splendid theological colleges in North Africa. For more than four centuries, it housed an impressive number of students in its 130 dormitory cells.
Walk along the street outside the madrasa, and you could easily pass by without a second glance; it has a fairly nondescript wooden door save for an inscription that reads: “You who enter my door, may your highest hopes be exceeded.” Inside lies a cool central courtyard with a marble patio and water basin, the walls and columns are decorated with Moorish tiles forming geometric mosaics, alongside sculptures, stuccoes, and cedar windows with carved vines.
A prayer hall sits off the main courtyard, and contains some of the most impressive decorations. Here, three naves are bordered by arch-bearing marble pillars with ornamental motifs of pine cones and palms; the walls are traditionally embellished with Islamic calligraphy and more zellige tile work. Look up and you’ll see a dome crafted from cedar wood with 24 small mosaic windows, giving a glimpse into something that lies beyond.
Almoravid Koubba’s Medieval Monks
The Almoravid Koubba is the oldest monument in Marrakesh and the city’s only surviving example of Almoravid architecture. The Almoravids were a Berber dynasty that could be described as a cross between Islamic monks and soldiers, who founded the city of Marrakesh in the 11th century.
From their capital in the city, the empire managed to extend its dominion over all of Morocco, and conquered a large part of the Iberian Peninsula. Marrakech became a great walled capital with lush gardens and magnificent mosques – of which today, nothing remains. Except the Koubba.
The Almoravid Koubba (or Koubba Ba’adiyin) was built in 1117. This small building was once part of a lost Almoravid mosque, where it was used for ablutions before prayer. The koubba had a system of toilets, showers, and taps. Its water was extracted from underground aquifers and transported by bronze pipes.
Today the importance of this building is not only historical; its style also had a huge influence on Moroccan architecture. Of particular importance is the abundance of decorative elements in the dome, such as palms, pine cones, and tree leaves. In the years to come, these would be used in mosques and buildings throughout the city. Pay close attention to the shapes of the windows; they would later become symbolic of the Almohades and the Benimerin dynasty.
Also of note is the curious calligraphy covering the koubba foundation, which includes the oldest cursive inscription in Maghrebi script found in North Africa.
Jardin Majorelle’s Botanical Arts
The Jardin Majorelle is an artistic botanical landscape originally created by the French artist Jacques Majorelle over a period of 40 years. It was later restored by Yves Saint-Laurent, and is arguably one of the most beautiful gardens in Morocco.
Jacques Majorelle (1886-1962) was the son of the renowned Art Nouveau furniture designer Louis Majorelle. The Frenchman was a man of many talents and interests, but was best known as an Orientalist painter, until he built his labour of love – the Jardin Majorelle.
Majorelle arrived in Morocco in 1917, first to Casablanca and then to Marrakech. He fell in love with the colorful city, and in 1923 purchased a plot of land near a palm grove. As he became more established, he slowly began to develop and expand his property. He built himself a house in the Moorish style, and a Berber-style building with a tall adobe tower, which he called the Borj.
In 1931, Majorelle commissioned the architect Paul Sinoir to design and build a Cubist villa near his first house. He used the ground floor as his workshop, and the second floor as his studio and while he continued to paint, Majorelle also dove headlong into one of his other passions, that of an amateur botanist.
For almost 40 years, he carefully cultivated 135 plant species from five continents, turning his property into an enchanting landscape covered in cacti, yucca, jasmine, bougainvillea, palms, coconut trees, banana trees, white water lilies, bamboo and more. He also used his own colours to paint the buildings dotted around the property, a clear and intense blue that he trademarked as bleu Majorelle, or Majorelle Blue.
The garden became an expensive passion for Majorelle, a fact he didn’t hide: “This garden is a momentous task, to which I give myself entirely. It will take my last years from me and I will fall, exhausted, under its branches, after having given it all my love.”
In 1947, he decided to open it to the public to help with the maintenance costs. And not long after, things started to go wrong for Jacques Majorelle. He divorced from his wife, Andrée Longueville, in 1956, which forced him to split up the property. He then suffered a serious car accident, eventually leading to the amputation of his left leg. The operations drained his finances and he was forced to sell off his share of the villa and gardens. He was sent to Paris for treatment, where he died of complications from his injuries on October 14, 1962.
The Jardin Majorelle fell into disrepair during this period. But four years after the death of Jacques Majorelle, hope arrived in the shape of French fashion designer Yves Saint-Laurent and his lifelong business partner and lover, Pierre Bergé. They discovered the Jardin Majorelle in 1966 and immediately fell in love with it. In 1980, when they heard the property was likely to be bulldozed and turned into a hotel complex, they promptly purchased and set about restoring it.
Careful to maintain the original vision of Jacques Majorelle, Saint-Laurent and Bergé oversaw a restoration project that not only resurrected the garden, but expanded upon it. Automatic irrigation systems were installed; a team of 20 gardeners was put in place, and the number of plant species was increased from 135 to 300.
Yves Saint-Laurent died in 2008, and his ashes were scattered in the rose garden at Jardin Majorelle. Two years later, the street in front of the Jardin Majorelle was renamed the Rue Yves Saint Laurent in his honour. In 2010, ownership of the property passed to the Foundation Pierre Bergé – Yves Saint Laurent: a French not-for-profit organisation. In 2011, the Berber Museum was inaugurated on the garden grounds, offering a rich insight into the creativity of the Berber people.
North Africa’s Pioneer Women
Musée de La Femme (Women’s Museum), North Africa’s first museum of its kind, preserves the culture of Moroccan women and their artistic achievements. Visitors can learn about the historical, social, and political impact of women’s art within the Moroccan landscape through a revolving line-up of cross-genre exhibitions.
From contemporary painters, activists, filmmakers, and poets to traditional craftswomen, textile weavers, and fashion designers, the museum highlights a wide scope of creative heritage. The feminist museum is not only focused on exhibiting contemporary “high” art, but also uses the space to showcase invaluable contributions to the domestic sphere too. The museum’s debut exhibition, for instance, was dedicated to the daily life and artwork of rural women, emphasising the tropes of family, community, and village lifestyle.
Musée de La Femme’s exhibition as of June 2019, entitled “Pioneer Women,” highlights three women who helped lay the foundations for contemporary Morocco: politician and education advocate Malika Al-Fassi, documentary filmmaker Izza Genini, and artist Rachida Touijri.
The work of artist André Heller, ANIMA is a place to escape the craziness of the city. It’s a fair distance outside the centre and can be difficult to find, but it’s worth the effort. The garden is so lush, you’d be forgiven for forgetting you’re in a desert as soon as you enter its colourful walls. Walkways wind between the cacti, palm trees, and roses that form its unconventional forest.
Live artwork populates the land, with a safari of paintings, photographs, and unique sculptures nestled among the plants. Keep an eye out for works by iconic artists like Keith Haring and Pablo Picasso. Though this is an artist’s private garden, tickets are available. There’s a free shuttle from the Medina, and it’s about a 35-minute drive from the centre. There’s also a small museum and café on-site.
Mechoui Mutton And Camel Cuisine
Mechoui Alley in Marrakesh is famous for its many family-owned stalls selling just one delicacy: mechoui, a slow-roasted whole lamb or mutton that’s cooked in underground clay pits. The meat is sold by the weight and traditionally served with salt, cumin, bread, and mint tea. Arrive early to get the best pieces of meat, although its the sheep’s head and eyeballs that are seen as the ultimate delicacies here.
Amongst the snake charmers and the mosques bellowing their call to prayer, you will find the wisest, and most understated choice: the sheep brain. Skip the outside stalls and delve deep into the market where those in the know sit. Amongst the ubiquitous plastic tables you will find vendors selling cooked brains, which is prepared for both residents and tourists alike.
It may seem daunting at first, as it retains the majority of its original shape and structure, but most diners find its buttery and fatty texture surprisingly appealing. Typically it’s cooked with seasonings such as cumin, coriander, turmeric and garlic, then chopped into bits, and accompanied with sauce. The result is rich, smooth, and aromatic.
A 20-minute walk from the famous Jemaa el-Fna night market, the bustling Marrakesh Kasbah offers up amazingly aromatic and savoury dishes. Within these palm tree-lined alleyways, you’ll find tradition melding with modernity through another unique, and slightly sweet dish: the camel burger.
The lean camel burger is considered to have a subtle aftertaste, akin to lamb. While a camel burger is considered low in fat, you can also find burgers that incorporate additional hump fat for a heftier experience. Typically, camel meat is considered much more desirable if it comes from a young calf, as the meat from older camels can become tough and gamey.
For more conventional finds, you can enjoy rooftop views at L’mida, dinner with jazz in Le Bistro Arabe, luxuriously intimate settings at Le trou au mur, and a light lunch within the oasis of Le Jardin. The famous Souk Semmarine is another bustling market district offering everything from colourful clothing and fabrics to antiques, food and spices. And if you love to indulge in retail as recreation, there’s also the Sidi Ghanem and the wide French-era streets of Gueliz.
There are many great street-stall coffee spots, but a popular tourist destination for this human oil is the Bacha Coffee house. Built in 1910, its story begins in the medina of Marrakech, and the spectacular Dar el Bacha palace, which means “house of the Pasha”, which united the greatest cultural and political minds of the century over glittering pots of “coffee of Arabia” or Arabica, as it is known today. Closed for 60 years, Bacha Coffee has now reopened to continue its tradition of offering over 200 fine, 100% Arabica coffees from around the world.
Jarjeer Mule’s Final Refuge
Exiting Marrakesh, the view seems to empty out like sand in an hourglass, and becomes all sky. The highway to the south runs along a line of futuristic-looking lights and eventually leads to the Jarjeer Mule And Donkey Refuge.
Terracotta cubist buildings mirror the minimalist ethos of Jarjeer; its refuge is comprised of a home, stables, and corrals, with courtyards and fountains being the greatest extravagance amongst the bees and butterflies. This is the love-child of Susan Machin and Charles Hantom, two recovering British lawyers that have retired on this pet project.
The idea arose when the couple worked with an animal rescue organisation and took home a donkey that needed more long-term care. After someone else brought them another donkey, the idea of building a sanctuary began to take form: they eventually acquired dozens of equines, as well as several dogs.
Once animals are brought to the refuge, they stay for the rest of their lives, and are never tethered. After a lifetime of labour, they roam free and are fed twice a day on alfalfa and sugar beets. Some of the animals’ stories are truly horrifying, and the marks still show on their bodies. Working donkeys are often abandoned if they become injured in Morocco and many arrive at the sanctuary in poor physical condition.
Caleche horses often arrive starved because their owners can’t feed them without substantial business from tourists. However, the centre does a great job of helping the animals rebound. There are many tragedies in these animals’ tales, but the overall experience of Jarjeer is uplifting. Witnessing the animals being comforted and at peace is truly an enlightening experience.
Atlas Mountain Rangers
A peaceful chunk of Berber culture restored, the Kasbah du Toubkal is located in the middle of the Atlas Mountain range. Its modern claim to fame is that the surrounding geography was spectacular enough to stand in for the Himalayas in Martin Scorsese’s film Kundun.
The hotel itself is an attraction and you needn’t be a guest to visit this luxury spot. The original owner was a local chief, and it still offers traditional foods or mint tea adorned in traditional Berber design. There are also treks (which may include rides on mules) to visit more of the mountains, as well as the nearby village and Toubkal National Park.
The hotel makes every effort to be sustainable and support the local community; five percent of its profits go toward the surrounding villages, helping to provide education for their youth. Most of the employees are from the area, and the restoration of the building used traditional techniques – partly because electricity hadn’t yet arrived to its remote mountain regions.