Marrakech: The Jewel in the Kingdom of Morocco
Dienstag, September 8th, 2009
The history of Morocco goes back to Roman times when it was part of the Roman province of Mauritania after which it fell to the Vandals in the 5th century. The Vandals were a German tribe that during the first four centuries AD migrated southwards from Scandinavia and the Southern Baltic coast. They sacked Rome, creating great devastation in their wake; this also gave rise to the meaning of the word “vandalism” as we know it today. Morocco was under the Berber dynasties from the 11th to the 14th centuries and then became a Barbary pirate base under the Portuguese (1415 to 1759). In the early part of the 20th century it was divided into French and Spanish protectorates and in 1923 it was the international zone of Tangier. In 1956 it became a Sultanate and a year later a Kingdom under King Mohammed V, whilst his son Hassan II came to the throne in 1961, reigning for 38 years until his death on the 30th July, 1999, when he was succeeded by his son, who became King Mohammed VI.
Morocco is the gateway to Africa; exotic, surprising, and enthralling. It has golden beaches, snow-capped mountains, deep gorges and shifting Saharan “sand seas.” You can enjoy the amenities of modern coastal resorts like Agadir or do as I did and visit the jewel in Morocco’s crown – Marrakech, the country’s most imperial city. Here you will find ancient ramparts, interesting palaces, mosques and gardens. The old town is a maze of souks and alleyways, whilst the new part of the city has elegant, wide avenues, flanked by jacaranda and orange trees.
One of the most fascinating places to visit in Marrakech is the market place Djemaa el Fna, also known as the ” Square of the Beheaded” – why so called I do not know but along with you, dear reader, I can guess the reason for this sinister name. Fear not, for it is now a place filled with an amazing array of visitors who are attracted by the acrobats, jugglers, fortune-tellers and the many miracle healers. Also to be seen wooing the tourists is a turbaned snake charmer who has a deadly poisonous scorpion crawling over his protruding tongue, as well as a frightening display of vipers. In another corner of the market is the storyteller with his tales about a demonic woman, known as Aisha Kandisha, who could lay a curse on a man at will turning him into an eternal bachelor. As a married man, I ask myself is it a curse to be a bachelor? Nearby, is a group of musicians wearing caps studded with shells and twirling and whirling just like dervishes! These musicians, the Gnaouas, are purported to have been endowed with magic powers in return for having made a pact with the “spirit world.” Further along the bazaar are authentic souks where you will find all the wonders of the region within the many and varied small shops, including curved daggers made of silver, attractively embroidered leather bags, luxurious wedding slippers, wonderful rugs and carpets, traditional earthenware and pottery, as well as a variety of artistically designed tables inlaid with aromatic woods.
On the busy Ragba Kedima Place, merchants are selling dried thorn tailed lizards, allegedly for medicinal purposes, and porcupine brushes, supposedly to be used as a cosmetic aid. This is in an area where in days gone by slaves were once traded. Nowadays, herbal healers sing the praises of orange flower water and Spanish fly as aphrodisiacs.
Still in the souk is Dyers Alley with its vast array of brightly coloured yarn hanging out to dry. Unfortunately, the artisans of this old trade are gradually being pushed aside by the souvenir traders, presumably because selling souvenirs is more lucrative. Oblivious to all around him in an adjoining alleyway sits one of the Sufis, a member of a mystical Islamic brotherhood dating back to the 8th century AD, surrounded by an enormous heap of rose petals which are looked upon by the brotherhood as being the incarnation of “heavenly” perfume.
Not to be missed is a visit to the 14th century Moorish-designed building known as the Medersa Ben Youssef, which was formerly a Koran university but is now a museum. The attractively designed Arabesque figures adorning the tiles and the ornamental vines painted on the stucco walls of the building are reminiscent of the architecture that flourished during the heyday of Islam in the Spanish cities of Cordoba, Grenada, and Seville. In former times the cleverer Moroccan man who had learned the Koran by heart went on to study the Sunni theology of Islam. Many were then sent to the Berber hinterland to become Islamic missionaries or members of the judiciary. The splendour of the Medersa is attributed to the Arab dynasty within the south of the country, which became known as the Beni Saad. In 1591, the Saadis conquered the trading centre of Timbuktu, thus bringing unbelievable wealth to this dynasty, thereby enabling them to erect “the Jewel of the Casbah,” the Saadi Mausoleum in the ostentatious Hispanic-Moorish style.
It is also well worth arranging an excursion to visit Mount Toubkal, which, at over 4.000 metres, is the highest mountain in North Africa. It takes about two hours by coach to arrive at the picturesque Berber village of Imlil. Then, be prepared for a long trek through the High Atlas mountains with the route going through the ancient cliff top village of Aremd where there is to be found the grave of Sidi Chamharouch, the legendary Islamic preacher, who allegedly could banish evil spirits and cure infertility. Before arriving at the peak you will come across snowfields and later on alpine flora before ascending still further when you will have a wonderful view of the many mountain chains and plateaus before arriving at Mount Toubkal in the Moroccan Great Atlas Range.
Back in Marrakech be sure to visit one of the many folklore restaurants to savour a typical Moroccan dish of roast lamb straight out of the charcoal oven. Whilst you are enjoying your dinner, local horsemen will be “kicking up dust in the streets” riding their Arab and Berber horses.
Where to stay?
If you want to spoil yourself, then you must choose the elegant Hotel La Mamounia located right in the heart of Marrakech within its own lush tropical gardens surrounded by 12th century ramparts of the old city. The General Manager and his dedicated staff pride themselves on giving all their guests traditional Moroccan hospitality and the hotel is also renowned as a meeting place for celebrities from all over the world – the good, the bad and the ugly.
As befits a luxury hotel, there is the Italian restaurant “L’Imperiale” for Venetian specialists and grand classical dishes; “L’Orangerie”, a restaurant specialising in superb French and international cuisine; and by the poolside, “Les Trois Palmiers” where you can enjoy an exotic poolside luncheon buffet. For more traditional Moroccan dining try the hotel’s “Le Marocain” restaurant with its typical Moorish setting and where you will be entertained nightly by an Andalusian band and authentic belly-dancers.
There is a charming piano bar where you can relax whilst enjoying that pre or after dinner drink. There is an elegant ballroom, which can also be used for conferences for up to 300 people. Adjoining is an exclusive shopping arcade. Other facilities include a health club, massage and sauna, Turkish baths, beauty parlour, golf, squash and tennis courts, swimming pool and much more.
I firmly believe that if you want a relaxing holiday with a difference, then a visit to Marrakech is a perfect destination.
Award-Winning International Travel & Features Writer