Morocco Tour Guide: Marrakech / Marrakesh

Morocco Tour Guide: Marrakech / Marrakesh Last updated on Thursday 22nd April 2010

Population: 1,517,000 (1990 est.)

An oasis set upon the fertile Haouz Plain at the foot of the High Atlas Mountains, Marrakech is the fourth of Morocco's Imperial Cities. Founded in 1062 as the capital of the Almoravid dynasty, it continued in the 12 century as capital of the Almohads.

The origins of the city's name have been argued over for centuries. The most current belief is that the name is of Berber derivation referring to "The Sons of Kutch" or "Land of the Sons of Kutch" which may well relate to the Biblical figure Kutch, son of Sham who lived in Upper Egypt, Ethiopia and southern Arabia.

Others believe Marrakech is derived from the Masmooda dialect meaning "Do not linger", a warning to travelers that the area prior to the establishment of the city was notorious for highwaymen.

Regardless of the origins of the word, Marrakech gave its name to the whole country of Morocco in all its many foreign versions -- Morocco, Maroc, Morokko, Marruecos, etc. All these names come from the Latin "Morroch" which derives from the medieval name for Marrakech.

The Almoravids made Marrakech the capital of an empire that covered most of the Magreb (North West Africa) and extended well into Europe. With the Almoravid conquest of Southern Spain, Marrakech was invested with the exquisite cosmopolitan culture of Andalucia. This cross-fertilization is rare indeed for a remote desert enclave.

Under the Almoravids Marrakech became a bastion of Islamic civilization and an intellectual centre where the most famous scholars and philosophers of the age converged. The power of the Almoravids also made Marrakech into a great commercial centre and wealth flowed into the city, further transforming its architecture. Lavish buildings were constructed and splendid gardens were designed. The ancient ramparts and gates of the city are monuments to the city's medieval pre-eminence.

Almohad armies stormed the gates of Marrakech on 23 March, 1147, conquering the Almoravid capital. The Almohades under Abdal Mou'min continued their conquest of North Africa, extending their empire through Algeria and Tunisia and moving across the Mediterranean to capture Seville, Cordoba and Granada.

Under Abdal Mou'min Marrakech became an even greater Islamic capital. Abdal Mou'min was a great builder and gave Marrakech its most spectacular landmark, the Minaret Al Kutubiyya with four walls, each face measuring 42ft, rising 226ft to the tip of a lantern turret. Masjid Al Kutubiyya is among the greatest works of North African architecture and is surrounded by beautiful gardens, which continue to adorn the city today.

Marrakech went into a period of decline under the Merinids who captured the city in 1269. The Merinid capital was already centred in Fez and Marrakech fell into neglect for two and a half centuries.

The fortunes of Marrakech revived under the Saadian dynasty. The Saadians were tribesmen from the Souss region, who conquered the whole of Southern Morocco in a war against the Portuguese colonialist in Agadir.

When the Saadians gained control of the whole of Morocco their leader, Mohammed Al Mahdi, made Marrakech his capital in 1551 and began to restore the city. During this period Al Bedi palace was built which was considered one of the most spectacular architectural achievements of the century.

Moroccan crafts reached a high watermark during the Saadian period and many splendid palaces were built which bear witness to their exquisite artistry.

Marrakech also became known as a magnet for some of the greatest saints of Islam, many of whom are buried within the city.

In the 17th Sultan Moulay Ismail assigned Sheikh Al Hassan Al Youssi to choose seven Muslim saints buried in Marrakech to form a spiritual hierarchy for the city. The holy men chosen lived and died in Marrakech between the 12th and 16th centuries. They are Sidi Cadi Ayad, Sidi As-Soheyli, Sidi Yousef Bin Ali, Sidi Bel Abbis, Sidi Bin Sliman Al Jazouli, Sidi Abdal Aziz Tebba and Sidi Al Ghazwani.

Sheikh Al Hassan Al Youssi organized a kind of spiritual tour of their tombs, which became known as the Visit of the Seven Men of Marrakech. This practice became a national religious institution, to the point where many Moroccans say "I am going to the Seven Men", meaning that they are travelling to Marrakech even though, except for the annual Moussem of the Seven Saints, the practice has now been largely abandoned.

Marrakech, like Fez, is a genuinely Islamic city in both its genesis and traditions. The modern city was constructed in 1913 during the French occupation of the country and reflects the European influence. But the essence of the city remains the same.

Throughout history the city has never failed to leave an indelible mark upon visitors. Sir Winston Churchill was particularly taken by Marrakech and, in his War Memoirs has left this evocative memorial to the southern Moroccan city:

"Here, surrounded by its extensive palm-groves that have sprung out of the desert, the traveler may rest assured that he will never tire of the majestic view of the snow-covered Atlas mountains. The sun is dazzling and warm, but never unbearably so; the air is sharp and refreshing, yet never unpleasantly cold; the days are perfect, the nights are cool.

"The local inhabitants, dressed in their burnooses of various colours and patterns, are themselves a permanent picture; every countryman is a possible painting, every crowd is a pictorial composition.

"Should anyone be seeking a warm sunny Winter, it is to be found in a truly unique setting here in Morocco."

Marrakech is a rail terminus for other parts of Morocco. Roads link the city with the north and with the Atlantic seaport of Safi.

Local industries relate to desert crops and include tanning and handicrafts. Marrakech is famous for its fine leather-work and desert carpets.

In the surrounding area lead, zinc, copper, molybdenum and graphite are mined.

Places of interest

The Souk's

Jemaa El Fnaa Square

Al Bedi Palace

Bahia Palace

Palmeraie (Palm Grove)

Masjid Koutoubia

Aguedal Gardens

General information

Tourist Board
Place Abdelmoumen Ben Ali
Tel: 43 10 88 / 44 88 89

Tourist Information Office
176, boulevard Mohamed V
Tel: 43 20 97 / 43 47 97

Bus station
Bab Doukkala
Tel: 43 39 33

Railway station
avenue Hassan II
Tel: 44 77 68 / 44 77 03

Airline
Royal Air Maroc
197, avenue Mohammed V
Tel: 43 62 05 / 44 64 44

Airport
Tel: 44 78 62

Fire Service
rue Khalid Ben Oualid
Tel: 15

Fire
Tel: 19

All-night Chemist
rue Khalid Ben Oualid
Tel: 43 04 15

Campsite
avenue de France
Tel: 43 18 44

Arts and Crafts Centre
avenue Mohamed V
Tel: 42 38 35 / 42 38 36

Main festivals and cultural events
International marathon
Festival of Popular Arts
Dakka Marrakchia Festival
Moussem of the 7 Saints

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