In Marrakech, stock up on spices and let yourself be carried away by the life and colors of this city with its unspoiled charm. In the High Atlas, enjoy a fresh getaway in the heart of the Ourika Valley. In Essaouira, stroll through its medina, authentic and timeless.
Main article: Landmarks of Marrakesh
Jemaa el-Fnaa in the evening
The Jemaa el-Fnaa is one of the best-known squares in Africa and is the center of city activity and trade. It has been described as a “world-famous square”, “a metaphorical urban icon, a bridge between the past and the present, the place where (spectacularized) Moroccan tradition encounters modernity.” It has been part of the UNESCO World Heritage site since 1985. The square’s name has several possible meanings; the most plausible etymology endorsed by historians is that it meant “ruined mosque” or “mosque of annihilation”, referring to the construction of a mosque within the square in the late 16th century that was left unfinished and fell into ruin. The square was originally an open space for markets located on the east side of the Ksar el-Hajjar, the main fortress and palace of the Almoravid dynasty who founded Marrakesh. Following the takeover of the city by the Almohads, a new royal palace complex was founded to the south of the city (the Kasbah) and the old Almoravid palace was abandoned, but the market square remained. Subsequently, with the fluctuating fortunes of the city, Jemaa el-Fnaa saw periods of decline and renewal.
Historically this square was used for public executions by rulers who sought to maintain their power by frightening the public. The square attracted dwellers from the surrounding desert and mountains to trade here, and stalls were raised in the square from early in its history. The square attracted tradesmen, snake charmers (“wild, dark, frenzied men with long disheveled hair falling over their naked shoulders”), dancing boys of the Chleuh Atlas tribe, and musicians playing pipes, tambourines and African drums. Today the square attracts people from a diversity of social and ethnic backgrounds and tourists from all around the world. Snake charmers, acrobats, magicians, mystics, musicians, monkey trainers, herb sellers, story-tellers, dentists, pickpockets, and entertainers in medieval garb still populate the square.
Olives and colourful bejewelled slippers for sale
Marrakesh has the largest traditional market in Morocco and the image of the city is closely associated with its souks. Historically the souks of Marrakesh were divided into retail areas for particular goods such as leather, carpets, metalwork and pottery. These divisions still roughly exist with significant overlap. Many of the souks sell items like carpets and rugs, traditional Muslim attire, leather bags, and lanterns. Haggling is still a very important part of trade in the souks.
One of the largest souks is Souk Semmarine, which sells everything from brightly coloured bejewelled sandals and slippers and leather pouffes to jewellery and kaftans. Souk Ableuh contains stalls which specialize in lemons, chilis, capers, pickles, green, red, and black olives, and mint, a common ingredient of Moroccan cuisine and tea. Similarly, Souk Kchacha specializes in dried fruit and nuts, including dates, figs, walnuts, cashews and apricots.Rahba Qedima contains stalls selling hand-woven baskets, natural perfumes, knitted hats, scarves, tee shirts, Ramadan tea, ginseng, and alligator and iguana skins. The Criée Berbère, to the northeast of this market, is noted for its dark Berber carpets and rugs. Souk Siyyaghin is known for its jewellery, and Souk Smata nearby is noted for its extensive collection of babouches and belts. Souk Cherratine specializes in leatherware, and Souk Belaarif sells modern consumer goods. Souk Haddadine specializes in ironware and lanterns. The Medina is also famous for its street food. Mechoui Alley is particularly famous for selling slow-roasted lamb dishes.The Ensemble Artisanal, located near the Koutoubia Mosque, is a government-run complex of small arts and crafts which offers a range of leather goods, textiles and carpets. Young apprentices are taught a range of crafts in the workshop at the back of this complex.
City walls and gates
Main article: Walls of Marrakesh
Medina walls of Marrakesh
The ramparts of Marrakesh, which stretch for some 19 kilometres (12 mi) around the medina of the city, were built by the Almoravids in the 12th century as protective fortifications. The walls are made of a distinct orange-red clay and chalk, giving the city its nickname as the “red city”; they stand up to 19 feet (5.8 m) high and have 20 gates and 200 towers along them.
Of the city’s gates, one of the best-known is Bab Agnaou, built in the late 12th century by the Almohad caliph Ya’qub al-Mansur as the main public entrance to the new Kasbah.The Berber name Agnaou, like Gnaoua, refers to people of Sub-Saharan African origin (cf. Akal-n-iguinawen – land of the black). The gate was called Bab al Kohl (the word kohl also meaning “black”) or Bab al Qsar (palace gate) in some historical sources. The corner-pieces are embellished with floral decorations. This ornamentation is framed by three panels marked with an inscription from the Quran in Maghrebi script using foliated Kufic letters, which were also used in Al-Andalus. Bab Agnaou was renovated and its opening reduced in size during the rule of sultan Mohammed ben Abdallah.
The medina has at least eight main historic gates: Bab Doukkala, Bab el-Khemis, Bab ad-Debbagh, Bab Aylan, Bab Aghmat, Bab er-Robb, Bab el-Makhzen and Bab el-‘Arissa. These date back to the 12th century during the Almoravid period and many have them have been modified since. Bab Doukkala (in the northwestern part of the city wall) is in general more massive and less ornamented than the other gates; it takes its name from Doukkala area on the Atlantic coast, well to the north of Marrakesh. Bab el-Khemis is in the medina’s northeastern corner and is named for the open-air Thursday market (Souq el Khemis). It is one of the city’s main gates and features a man-made spring. Bab ad-Debbagh, to the east, has one of the most complex layouts of any gate, with an interior passage that turns multiple times. Bab Aylan is located slightly further south of it. Bab Aghmat is one of the city’s main southern gates, located east of the Jewish and Muslim cemeteries and near the tomb of Ali ibn Yusuf. Bab er Robb is the other main southern exit from the city, located near Bab Agnaou. It has a curious position and layout which may be the result of multiple modifications to the surrounding area over the years.It provides access to roads leading to the mountain towns of Amizmiz and Asni.
Pavilion and reservoir of the Menara gardens
The city is home to a number of gardens, both historical and modern. The largest and oldest gardens in the city are the Menara gardens to the west and the Agdal Gardens to the south. The Menara Gardens were established in 1157 by the Almohad ruler Abd al-Mu’m They are centered around a large water reservoir surrounded by orchards and olive groves. A 19th-century pavilion stands at the edge of the reservoir. The Agdal Gardens were established during the reign of Abu Ya’qub Yusuf (r. 1163–1184) and extend over a larger area today, containing several water basins and palace structures. The Agdal Gardens cover about 340 hectares (1.3 sq mi) and are surrounded by a circuit of pisé walls while the Menara Gardens cover around 96 hectares (0.37 sq mi). The water reservoirs for both gardens were supplied with water through an old hydraulic system known as khettaras, which conveyed water from the foothills of the nearby Atlas Mountains.
The Majorelle Garden, on Avenue Yacoub el Mansour, was at one time the home of the landscape painter Jacques Majorelle. Famed designer Yves Saint Laurent bought and restored the property, which features a stele erected in his memory, and the Museum of Islamic Art, which is housed in a dark blue building. The garden, open to the public since 1947, has a large collection of plants from five continents including cacti, palms and bamboo.
The Koutoubia Mosque is also flanked by another set of gardens, the Koutoubia Gardens. They feature orange and palm trees, and are frequented by storks.The Mamounia Gardens, more than 100 years old and named after Prince Moulay Mamoun, have olive and orange trees as well as a variety of floral displays. In 2016, artist André Heller opened the acclaimed garden ANIMA near Ourika, which combines a large collection of plants, palms, bamboo and cacti as well as works by Keith Haring, Auguste Rodin, Hans Werner Geerdts and other artists.
Palaces and Riads
Courtyard in the Bahia Palace
The historic wealth of the city is manifested in palaces, mansions and other lavish residences. The best-known palaces today are the El Badi Palace and the Bahia Palace, as well as the main Royal Palace which is still in use as one of the official residences of the King of Morocco. Riads (Moroccan mansions, historically designating a type of garden) are common in Marrakesh. Based on the design of the Roman villa, they are characterized by an open central garden courtyard surrounded by high walls. This construction provided the occupants with privacy and lowered the temperature within the building. Numerous riads and historic residences exist through the old city, with the oldest documented examples dating back to the Saadian period (16th-17th centuries), while many others date from the 19th and 20th centuries.
Minaret of the Koutoubia Mosque
The Koutoubia Mosque is one of the largest and most famous mosques in the city, located southwest of Jemaa el-Fnaa. The mosque was founded in 1147 by the Almohad caliph Abd al-Mu’min. A second version of the mosque was entirely rebuilt by Abd al-Mu’min around 1158, with Ya’qub al-Mansur possibly finalizing construction of the minaret around 1195. This second mosque is the structure that stands today. It is considered a major example of Almohad architecture and of Moroccan mosque architecture generally. Its minaret tower, the tallest in the city at 77 metres (253 ft) in height, is considered an important landmark and symbol of Marrakesh. It likely influenced other buildings such as the Giralda of Seville and the Hassan Tower of Rabat.
Ben Youssef Mosque is named after the Almoravid sultan Ali ibn Yusuf, who built the original mosque in the 12th century to serve as the city’s main Friday mosque. After being abandoned during the Almohad period and falling into ruin, it was rebuilt in the 1560s by Abdallah al-Ghalib and then completely rebuilt again Moulay Sliman at the beginning of the 19th century. The 16th-century Ben Youssef Madrasa is located next to it. Also next to it is the Koubba Ba’adiyn or Almoravid Koubba, a rare architectural remnant of the Almoravid period which was excavated and restored in the 20th century. The Koubba, a domed kiosk structure, demonstrates a sophisticated style and is an important indication of the art and architecture of the period.
The Kasbah Mosque overlooks Place Moulay Yazid in the Kasbah district of Marrakesh, close to the El Badi Palace. It was built by the Almohad caliph Yaqub al-Mansour in the late 12th century to serve as the main mosque of the kasbah (citadel) where he and his high officials resided. It contended with the Koutoubia Mosque for prestige and the decoration of its minaret was highly influential in subsequent Moroccan architecture. The mosque was repaired by the Saadi sultan Moulay Abdallah al-Ghalib following a devastating explosion at a nearby gunpowder reserve in the second half of the 16th century. Notably, the Saadian Tombs were built just outside its southern wall in this period.
Among the other notable mosques of the city is the 14th-century Ben Salah Mosque, located east of the medina centre. It is one of the only major Marinid-era monuments in the city. The Mouassine Mosque (also known as the Al Ashraf Mosque) was built by the Saadian sultan Abdallah al-Ghalib between 1562–63 and 1572–7] It was part of a larger architectural complex which included a library, hammam (public bathhouse), and a madrasa (school). The complex also included a large ornate street fountain known as the Mouassine Fountain, which still exists today. The Bab Doukkala Mosque, built around the same time further west, has a similar layout and style as the Mouassine Mosque. Both the Mouassine and Bab Doukkala mosques appear to have been originally designed to anchor the development of new neighbourhoods after the relocation of the Jewish district from this area to the new mellah near the Kasbah.
One of the most famous funerary monuments in the city is the Saadian Tombs, which were built in the 16th century as a royal necropolis for the Saadian Dynasty. It is located next to the south wall of the Kasbah Mosque. The necropolis contains the tombs of many Saadian rulers including Muhammad al-Shaykh, Abdallah al-Ghalib, and Ahmad al-Mansur, as well as various family members and later sultans. It consists of two main structures, each with several rooms, standing within a garden enclosure. The most important graves are marked by horizontal tombstones of finely carved marble, while others are merely covered in colorful zellij tiles. Al-Mansur’s mausoleum chamber is especially rich in decoration, with a roof of carved and painted cedar wood supported on twelve columns of carrara marble, and with walls decorated with geometric patterns in zellij tilework and vegetal motifs in carved stucco. The chamber next to it, originally a prayer room equipped with a mihrab, was later repurposed as a mausoleum for members of the Alaouite dynasty.
The city also holds the tombs of many Sufi figures. Of these, there are seven patron saints of the city, which are visited every year by pilgrims during the seven-day ziara pilgrimage. During this time pilgrims visit the tombs in the following order: Sidi Yusuf ibn Ali Sanhaji, Sidi al-Qadi Iyyad al-Yahsubi, Sidi Bel Abbas, Sidi Mohamed ibn Sulayman al-Jazouli, Sidi Abdellaziz Tabba’a, Sidi Abdellah al-Ghazwani, and lastly, Sidi Abderrahman al-Suhayli. Many of these mausoleums also serve as the focus of their own zawiyas (Sufi religious complexes with mosques), including: the Zawiya and mosque of Sidi Bel Abbes (the most important of them), the Zawiya of al-Jazuli, the Zawiya of Sidi Abdellaziz, the Zawiya of Sidi Yusuf ibn Ali, and the Zawiya of Sidi al-Ghazwani (also known as Moulay el-Ksour).
The Mellah of Marrakesh is the old Jewish Quarter (Mellah) of the city, located is in the kasbah area of the city’s medina, east of Place des Ferblantiers. It was created in 1558 by the Saadians at the site where the sultan’s stables were. At the time, the Jewish community consisted of a large portion of the city’s tailors, metalworkers, bankers, jewelers, and sugar traders. During the 16th century, the Mellah had its own fountains, gardens, synagogues and souks. Until the arrival of the French in 1912, Jews could not own property outside of the Mellah; all growth was consequently contained within the limits of the neighborhood, resulting in narrow streets, small shops and higher residential buildings. The Mellah, today reconfigured as a mainly residential zone renamed Hay Essalam, currently occupies an area smaller than its historic limits and has an almost entirely Muslim population. The Slat al-Azama Synagogue (or Lazama Synagogue), built around a central courtyard, is in the Mellah.The Jewish cemetery here is the largest of its kind in Morocco. Characterized by white-washed tombs and sandy graves, the cemetery is within the Medina on land adjacent to the Mellah. According to the World Jewish Congress there were only 250 Moroccan Jews remaining in Marakesh.
As one of the principal tourist cities in Africa, Marrakesh has over 400 hotels. Mamounia Hotel is a five-star hotel in the Art Deco-Moroccan fusion style, built in 1925 by Henri Prost and A. Marchis. It is considered the most eminent hotel of the city and has been described as the “grand dame of Marrakesh hotels.” The hotel has hosted numerous internationally renowned people including Winston Churchill, Prince Charles of Wales and Mick Jagger.Churchill used to relax within the gardens of the hotel and paint there. The 231-room hotel,which contains a casino, was refurbished in 1986 and again in 2007 by French designer Jacques Garcia. Other hotels include Eden Andalou Hotel, Hotel Marrakech, Sofitel Marrakech, Palm Plaza Hotel & Spa, Royal Mirage Hotel, Piscina del Hotel, and Palmeraie Palace at the Palmeraie Rotana Resort. In March 2012, Accor opened its first Pullman-branded hotel in Marrakech, Pullman Marrakech Palmeraie Resort & Spa. Set in a 17 hectares (42 acres) olive grove at La Palmeraie, the hotel has 252 rooms, 16 suites, six restaurants and a 535 square metres (5,760 sq ft) conference room.