The Moroccan city of Marrakech, also known as the Pearl of the South or the Ochre City, is the third largest city in Morocco and lies at the foothills of the snow-capped High Atlas Mountains. As one of the five Imperial Cities of Morocco, Marrakech has a long and fascinating history, dating back to its founding by Princess Zaynab in 1070. The city not only has the largest traditional market or souk in Morocco, but also offers a variety of astounding architectural sites that are not to be missed. Among the many charms and jewels of Marrakech, here is a list of five of the finest ones:
The Bahia Palace
The construction of the Bahia Palace was commissioned in 1880 by the Grand Vizier Sidi Moussa and is said to be the fruit of his folly. Successively at the service of Sultans Moulay Hassan and Moulay Abd el-Aziz, Sidi Moussa was the actual master of the Kingdom of Morocco.
The Grand Vizier commanded the erection of this palace, which consists of no less than 160 rooms, for one of her official concubines, thus the Bahia Palace meaning “Palace of the Beautiful Woman.”
The estate consists of a succession of luxuriant apartments and courtyards. The sumptuousness and elegance of the interior gardens are incomparable, and the ornaments and decorations are simply sublime. Moreover, the property is surrounded by an 8 hectares garden.
The beauty of the Bahia Palace is a remarkable testimony of 19th century Eastern architecture.
The Saadian tombs are the sole remains that bear witness to the power and refinement of the Saadian Dynasty, which ruled over South Morocco during its Golden Age, from 1554 to 1659.
At the dawn of the 18th century, Sultan Moulay Ismail had already decided to make all the traces of the magnificence of this dynasty disappear by commanding the destruction of all the remaining vestiges. But he did not dare committing the sacrilege of destroying their burial places and commanded that a wall be erected at the entrance of the necropolis. It was only in 1917 that the secret location of the tombs was unveiled.
The most stunning and prestigious mausoleum is the Hall of the Twelve Columns. This hall houses the tomb of the Sultan’s son, Ahmad Al Mansur, where the stele is in finely worked cedar wood and stucco. The tombs are made of white and blue-grey Italian Carrara marble. Some of the tombs bear poetic epitaphs, such as that of Princess Zohra’s, where one can read: “Here is the tomb of the noble dame, new moon, marvel of virtues”.
Dar el-Badi, the Palace of the Incomparable, was erected in 1578. It was the Saadian sovereign Ahmad Al Mansur, son of Sultan Moulay Ismail, who decided to build it as a celebration of his victory over the Portuguese Army after the battle of Ksar Al Kebir or Battle of Three Kings in 1578. It took 25 years, from 1578 to 1608, to complete the building of this sumptuous palace, and the richest and finest materials were used in the decoration of the 360 rooms of this princely estate.
The magnificence of the El Badi Palace is now ancient history, since it became one of the many victims of the will of the Alaouite sovereign Moulay Ismail, the “Warrior King,” of destroying any trace of the Saadian heritage. But you will certainly be amazed just by exploring the immense esplanade dug with basins and surrounded by fortifications, a design inspired by the Alhambra in Granada, Spain. Also, you will be able to admire the skill of Moroccan craftsmanship in the wooden work on the Koutoubia minbar exhibited in one of the refurbished pavilions.
Jemaa El Fna Square
The Jemaa El Fna square is the biggest square in the African continent and remains the geographical, social and cultural centre of the medina of Marrakech. For centuries, this square has been, and still is, a meeting and exchanging point of the populations of the North and South of this part of the country.
Nowadays, despite all cultural erosions and mutations, the Jemaa El Fna square is the meeting place of Berber merchants, travelers, peddlers, writers, and artists, and brings together all the traditional trades and crafts – public scribes, fortune tellers, storytellers, tooth strippers, herbalists, and entertainers -snake charmers, acrobats, musicians, dancers, fire-eaters, etc.
Ben Youssef Madrasa
The Ben Youssef madrasa, or school, is one of the jewels of the Arab-Andalousian architecture of Marrakech. The current structure of this Islamic college was erected around 1570 during the rule of the Saadian dynasty and was refurbished in 1950. At the peak of its splendor, the Ben Youssef madrasa could house up to 900 students in its 150 cells arranged around a courtyard richly carved in cedar, marble and stucco. The carvings contain no representation of humans or animals as required by Islam, and consist entirely of inscriptions and geometric patterns. Due to its characteristic architecture, this sacred building is the largest madrasa in the whole Maghreb.
So, if you are planning to discover the fantastic Ochre City and its amazing sites, we recommend you that you also enjoy the fantastic accommodations Marrakech has to offer. Also, in order to make the best of your vacation in Marrakech, I recommend you contact your local travel agent to find out about the many choices of different vacations and leisure activities that you can find in this wonderful and diverse country.
David Gonzalez-Murillo is a writer, journalist, educator and translator who has traveled extensively and has lived in several European, North American and African countries.