It’s easy to see the appeal of Marrakesh. A cultural and religious center for almost 1000 years, the Moroccan desert city is awash in ancient mosques, stunning architecture, palaces, and gardens. At its heart is the iconic Jemaa el-Fnaa, reputedly Africa’s largest and busiest square and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. There’s plenty to see and do, and this in a country that still represents a bastion of civility in a restless part of the world.
Marrakesh was the final stop on my travels through Morocco. I arrived in the city from Casablanca on what I’m guessing was the “Marrakesh Express”, although without the ducks, pigs, and chickens immortalized in CSNY’s 60s-era jingle. The direct trip took about 3 hours, whisking me from the lush agricultural terrain of the Chawiya plain on the Atlantic to the semi-arid landscape of central Morocco. Despite the dry climate, underwater springs have transformed the area around Marrakesh into a surprisingly lush and fertile oasis, likely what drew the local Berber population and a series of dynasties to set up shop there.
I had booked a room at the Hotel Ali, a moderately priced spot on the edge of Jemaa el-Fnaa that gave me a front row seat on all the action. And there was plenty to take in. Boxing matches, acrobats, snake charmers, musicians and fortune tellers were just a few of the acts that set up daily to entertain the crowds of visitors that packed the square. The family-friendly activities were a far cry from the public decapitations that used to take place in Jemaa el-Fnaa, and probably several steps up from the gritty trading that the square supported before the birth of the modern visitor industry.
The Hotel Ali had a rooftop restaurant that served a buffet with not bad chicken tagine (Moroccan stew) and provided a choice spot to photograph activities in the square. This turned out to be a godsend as I learned quickly that it was virtually impossible to photograph anything in the square without someone asking you to pay for the privilege. I can appreciate street performers wanting to be paid for their acts but why they targeted only those who raised a camera was a mystery. Why not just pass a tray around and ask all the onlookers to pay up? It was an annoying prerequisite that wasn’t limited to Jemaa but seemed to be standard practice throughout the popular parts of the city.
With taking pictures of animate objects mostly off limits, I focused on the inanimate. I started with the bustling souks (markets) with their leather shops and spices, then explored the city’s elaborate palaces, gardens, and mosques, and religious schools. Stops included the 800 year-old sandstone Koutoubia Mosque, at 200 feet the largest in the city, and the 150 year-old Bahia Palace. I also took in the Ben Youssef medersa (Koranic school), which dates back to the 14th century and includes ornate decorations spread across its wood and stucco-work surfaces. This is typical of the Andalusian style developed with Arab and Roman influences in southern Spain.
Much of the time I just sat back with some tea and took in Jemaa’s seemingly endless parade of humanity. I wasn’t thrilled with the restrictions on my picture taking but it probably didn’t hurt to shut the camera down and record the event organically. The images this fascinating city leaves behind are not easily forgotten.
Click on photos below for captions and slide show.