Spelt either as Marrakech or Marrakesh, is undoubtedly the enchanting, culture-rich and incredibly unique city of the Moroccan Kingdom 240 km away from the capital Rabat. A lecture on Morocco would be abominable without a mention of Marrakesh. The city literally is the centre of Morocco.
Marrakesh was as an imperial city of Morocco and played an essential role in Moroccan history and culture. It is also known as the ‘Red City’ because of the red sandstone used in its buildings and walls. The city screams colour from every point of view and competes strongly as the best North Africa has to offer. It was founded about 950 years ago by the Almoravid dynasty that reigned across North Africa and Spain in the eleventh century. Its name Marrakesh is derived from the indigenous North African language – Berber as ‘mur akush’ which means ‘land of God.’ Marrakesh is visibly Muslim with over two million inhabitants. Arabic is its official language, but many people speak Amazigh and French. However, English is increasingly spoken in tourist areas. All year round, about 30 percent of its occupants are tourists.
Marrakesh is a major hub of economic activity not only for Morocco but also the continent. As a former imperial city, it gained grounds through robust trading in its squares particularly the ‘Jamaa El-Fna’ or ‘Djemaa El-fna’ square. About eighteen ‘souks’ (Arab name for markets) are spread across the city trading in different products for different segments.
The Red City is a big tourist destination for architecture, cultural artifacts and food. Real estate – resorts, hotels and leisure centres make up for over two billion dollars’ worth of investment annually. Local crafts in the form of textiles, clothing, pottery, woodwork and basketry fuel the tourism sector by employing thousands of indigenes and essential to Moroccan exports. Economic ac
tivity – both service and manufacturing within the city contributes about 11.7 percent to Morocco’s GDP. Direct tourism contribution from Marrakesh to the Moroccan economy also averaged 60 million dollars annually from 2015 to 2017. Marrakesh’s Menara International airport, railway stations, and mostly good roads connecting to Casablanca and other big cities have led to steady increase in industrial activity, which has brought a huge amount of investment to the area.
TOURISM and HOSPITALITY
Marrakesh presents an intimate and very touristy feel to its visitors. It is the most visited place in Morocco, the most visited country in Africa, according to World Atlas but despite its status as a tourist magnet, the city continues to grow. Unceasing efforts by the Moroccan government to open its doors to foreign influence while maintaining its identity makes the city truly interesting. This very characteristic may leave outsiders a bit baffled as the connection between the very conservative Muslim culture and vibrant, urban Hollywood- like culture is balanced. As one of the go-to tourist destinations, the city stands out making bold cultural and historical statements through its landmarks and events.
Within ‘Medina’, the ancient part of the city that was not changed completely by the French during colonisation, are found a number of historic buildings. It is worthy to note that the Medina in its entirety was designated as a World Heritage site in 1985 by UNESCO. Considered as the heart of the red city, the Medina is a colorful and a spiritually rich area. As you walk deeper and deeper in this maze of alleys, you can find old Riads (large traditional houses built around courtyards) and frantic souks (markets). Along the way, you’ll enjoy visiting little handicraft shops full of traditional clothes, jewelry, hand knotted rugs and carpets.
- Jamaa El-fna Square
The Jamaa El-fna is interestingly situated between the modern part of Marrakesh, Gueliz, and the old historical part of Marrakesh, the Medina. The square is the focal point of the city’s contradictory structure. A bit of history reveals that the square served as a courtyard for arguing cases and execution grounds. Today, it is the main market square in Marrakesh, and immensely popular among locals and tourists alike making it one of the must-see places for anyone in Morocco. The square is extremely busy, loud and full with acrobats, herbalists, singers and poets, street artists and vendors of all sorts. It is also an established place for holding fairs and performances like the human pyramid spectacle in the afternoons.
At night, over 100 food stalls selling an extensive array of ingredients and dishes come to live. There are however food stalls at all times of the day. These include mounds of mutton, vegetables and dairy produce with more refined and exotically spiced specialities served in Westernized restaurants. Shopping for fruits is encouraged to be done in the mornings. It may be impossible to come back from the square without a souvenir. From intricately-designed carpets to large plates and clothes, there’s lots to choose from.
The Kutubiyyah or Koutoubia Mosque built in the 12th century by Spanish captives is the biggest mosque in Marrakesh. It is literally translated as the booksellers’ mosque. The mosque is located about 200 metres west of the Jamaa El-Fna square. Like most historical buildings within the city, it is built with sandstone and has six levels adorned with copper ornaments. The mosque, amid its impressiveness has a garden and minaret, a kind of tower usually built into mosques or by them to call Muslims to prayer.
- Bab Agnaou
When the old city of Marrakesh was first founded, it was surrounded by protective walls which featured a total of 19 huge gates through which the city could be accessed. The Bab Agnaou is one and only remainder of them. The stone gate is located near the city’s southwest corner. The Bab Agnaou is remarkable for its rich decoration that echoes the 12th century fortification design and embellishments. Its entryway appears as a large horseshoe arch with concentric circles of symmetrical carvings.
- El Badi Palace
The El Badi palace meaning “Palace of the incomparable” is a ruined architectural ensemble built to celebrate sultan Ahmed al-Mansur Dhahbi’s victory over the Portuguese. Undocumented history suggests that the palace was built from ransom obtained from the Portuguese after the battle of the three kings. The palace’s remains currently are only a large walkway of carved gardens, a few citrus trees and its high walls. Still, it is a powerful reminder of history. The Marrakesh Laughter Festival has been held here since 2011.
- Majorelle Gardens/ Jardin Majorelle
The Majorelle gardens was created by the French painter Jacques Majorelle (hence the name). The garden covers about three acres. It is home to several types of cacti and has stunning indigo/blue art house as its centrepiece along with palm trees, a pavilion, water lily pool and a museum of local artefacts. The plant species are landscaped to highlight each one’s distinctive beauty while the pools, streams and fountains embody serenity. The sound of trickling water accompanied by the chirping of birds makes it a place out of this world.
LIFE IN MARRAKESH
Attractive and adventurous, bright and beautiful, colourful and cultural; Marrakesh has been a stylish city for years, with its intoxicating way of living. From the mix of food, architecture, clothing, art and people, one is definitely bound to identify with something. Winston Churchill was captivated with Marrakesh during visits in the 1930s and 40s, declaring it “the last paradise on Earth” and “the loveliest spot in the world”. Over eighty years later, accolades still pour in for the city which it rightfully deserves.
Popular among cuisines served in Marrakesh is the Couscous though it’s served all over Morocco. It is made of steamed semolina grains with vegetables, chickpeas and sometimes meat – usually mutton or chicken – or, less often, fish. It is usually eaten by hand. If you are invited to a Moroccan home you are most likely to be given this. Traditionally it is eaten on Fridays. Other foods include the Tagine, Pastilla, Merguez and Djej.
Marrakesh has a dry climate with hot summers and cool winters. There is usually snow on the High Atlas from December to April/ May. It is important to be prepared if visiting as weather conditions may change quickly.
Events in Marrakesh
The city hosts the AeroExpo International Exhibition of aeronautical industries and the Riad Art Expo where it showcases industries internationally. Marrakesh’s annual 42km marathon attracts over 8000 athletes from around the world for a fast-paced race around the Medina. A 21km half marathon is also run at the same time for kids.
The city also hosts the Oasis Festival. It is an electronic music festival which invites an extensive lineup of international and exciting talent to showcase arts especially from North Africa. The Marrakesh Film Festival also has a firm footing in the international awards calendar. The festival’s interesting, art-based programmes and impressive international juries (includes Martin Scorsese in the past) ensure that the award ceremony constantly turns up new talent. During the festival, the Jamaa el-Fna is turned into an open-air cinema. Its seventeenth edition was held from November 30 – December 8 2018. Since the end of 2017, ‘Stars in the Jamaa El Fna Square- Marrakesh’ put up a musical concert intended to be held annually and inviting major names in the music for the Moroccan public and tourists.
Marrakechans are never Vitamin D deficient nor hungry for smells or adventure. The city bustles with activity like New York or Hong Kong just on a smaller scale. Visitors are always welcome.