Marrakech – Where Medieval Gets Modern

It’s a city that has seen the traditional tarnished by the excesses of Western-style consumerism, yet Marrakech remains an exhaustingly vivid cultural destination

Article by Pete Ballantine | 11 May 2016

The drivers of the Grand Taxis wait to whisk us into the centre of Marrakech. A knot of ancient, cream-coloured Mercedes Benz in various states of disrepair. Only the roar of a jet engine or the guttural singsong of heated Arabic argument punctuate the air-conditioned calm of the airport as the impatient cabbies create a pile-up of their saloon cars at the pick-up point.

The calm is fleeting. A six-lane highway, fringed by neat rows of olive and palm trees, arrows into the Centre Ville before suddenly merging traffic into a single chaotic lane at an unmarked junction. Dust and horns and handcarts destroy order. A lone, red-faced policeman futilely flags and blows his whistle in the midst of it all. Morocco in microcosm: a dichotomy of the traditional and modern, jarring against each other yet somehow still functioning. In Marrakech however, the authenticity has been tarnished by an ever-increasing wave of tourists. Thankfully, despite this influx, many vestiges of the city’s ancient architecture remain unscathed.

The Minaret of the Koutoubia Mosque soars above, a towering spear marking the centre of Marrakech. Now 900 years old, the Mosque remains the most prominent landmark in a city that now has its fair share of towering modern architecture. We take a right, muscling through traffic, with liberal use of hand gestures and the constant blaring of horns. The gateway to the Vieille Ville: the Medina.

This is the ancient old city of Marrakech, a near-thousand-year-old Berber trading post that once put the great cities of Europe to shame. The rhettara, an ingenious underground irrigation system that pumps water from rivers thirty miles distant, turning the once-parched gardens of the city green, dates back to this time. The ramparts and walls that encircle the Medina have withstood nearly a millennium of wear and tear and conflict. Architectural wonders, built while Europe was still mired in the depression of the Dark Ages.

Handling the Medina

The Medina, a manic headfuck, brings a concurrent assault on all of the senses. The smell of goat shit and spice and petrol intertwine. Narrow streets clogged with donkey carts as motorcycles and mopeds plough through the crowds belligerently. The fly encrusted shanks of meat, the butcher’s condemned grin and his blood-and-entrails-flecked djellaba. The February coolness of the shade in these sun-starved alleys as you inevitably lose yourself, bemusedly circling for hours. Walking the souks exhilarates and exasperates in equal measure. We twist and turn through endless terracotta tunnels that culminate at Jmaa el Fna, the main square.

Jmaa el Fna, 'the assembly of trespassers': it’s evening and the air is filled with pine and juniper smoke as one hundred barbecues roast one thousand chickens in the small marquees dotted about the dusty square. It’s a riotous spectacle of entranced cobras, dancing monkeys and wild-eyed acrobatic rascals. A medieval Cirque de Soleil that has somehow slipped into the present. Each stall offers a tenuously slight variation on the same tasty theme: tagines of chicken, goat or lamb, mountains of raisin and almond-flecked couscous, and Cockney wide-boy English accents from cheerful pushy peddlers. The heaving old square is one of the busiest plazas in Africa. It’s tiring, but magic.

And it’s all one mega-manifestation of hypercapitalism. Boundless stacked trinkets of wood, leather and silk, bound to gather dust on a forgotten shelf, are piled before tourists with eyes bigger than their luggage allowances on the flight home. Wipe-clean menus in English and Japanese, and tours of the pigeon-shit-filled ammonia pits of the tanneries, gagging behind a handful of fresh mint as you are funneled into yet another leather emporium. There are few stalls catering for the needs of the locals, and those that do exist are hidden far from the tourist trails of the main arteries of the Medina. It’s hard to discern the genuine, commonplace friendliness from an attempt to relieve us of the contents of our wallets. The Medina is a cartoon image of Morocco forged by the supply and demand culture of the souks.

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The history of Marrakech, the seasonal influx of Berbers from the Atlas and the Sahara to trade and to work, has been subverted to cater for the constant stream of visitors pouring into the souks. Once it was ostentatious Moroccans that dominated the wealth of the Medina. But it remains the raucous beating heart of Marrakech, and home to many of its poorest residents, those most in need of the tourist dollars that flood the city. The cash is spread thinly amongst a large number of workers, and the desperation of these people imbues the souks with an air of melancholy. The pursuit of happiness here seemingly tied to the pursuit of the buck. Traders denigrate each other’s wares as “fake” or “made in China”. Amidst the clamour, and the flood of produce, it is impossible to tell real craftsmanship from cheap imports. To those willing and able to chuck cash at the market stalls, there is a joy to be found, but it is fleeting and synonymous with the quick fix of consumerism.

Thankfully there are numerous boltholes to provide a welcome escape from the harum-scarum economy of the souks. Within the walls of the Medina, we tentatively re-enter the labyrinth to locate one of a number of palaces demonstrating a near forgotten era of Moroccan prosperity. The 19th century Bahia Palace in particular displays how life was for the 1% in times past. A network of calm, shady enclosures, interlinked by stucco doorways and zellij tiled passages. The racket of the streets replaced by the soft tinkle of water fountains and the rustle of orange trees in the light breeze that slips through the courtyards. The muffled beep of the traffic jam is all that reminds us that a city bustles by beyond the walls. Returning to the outside world is an ordeal after this sanctuary.

The antique mansions of the Medina, the riads, provide other handy quiet zones for those that can’t handle the pace of souk life. These buildings, modelled on Roman villas, consist of a small sheltered courtyard, surrounded by high walls to block out sound and sunlight. It is one of the great pleasures of Marrakech, stepping into these often-beautiful oases of tranquility. Sadly, during the 1960s hippification of Marrakech, many of these spaces were bought up and transformed into second homes for hash-smoking, new age types whose idea of embracing a culture was to hug it so tight that it could no longer breathe. Some riads are still available as accommodation for those seeking the ‘authentic’ Marrakech experience at a not so authentic price.

The Majorelle Gardens

Beyond the Medina lies the other Marrakech. It’s shiny and modern and grid-shaped. Women stroll, sans headscarf, licking ice creams, and convertibles cruise past, pumping out the hits. In short, it’s Europe. It’s the Nouvelle Ville, a product of the French occupiers’ desire to create a home from home. The streets here are quiet and clean, but stuffy and soulless. The only sign here of the poverty that pervades the souks is the army of Berber gardeners watering the dusty orange trees that line the wide boulevards.

But we ventured into this parallel world for a reason; to sample a beautiful piece of nouvelle Marrakech, a legacy of the artist Jacques Majorelle and designer Yves Saint-Laurent: the Majorelle Gardens. Designed and built in the 1920s and 30s, the garden is a glorious kitschy hotchpotch of styles and plant life, all underlined with Majorelle’s own shade of electric blue and the ever-present terracotta. It’s on the coach tour radar, but still worth a wander.

After a day patrolling the souks, there really is no place like home. Home being a riad with a relaxing cushion-filled courtyard, endless cups of mint tea, and Wi-Fi for those looking to plan an escape from the fascinating yet infuriating grasp of a dissonant city.

Up a rickety wooden staircase, where you really don’t want to encounter a rotund American tourist on the prowl for breakfast coming in the opposite direction, the terrace opens out revealing the city skyline. From this rooftop retreat of pot plants, the clutter of roofs and spires sprawls to the green belt of palms that fringe the city. When the sun breaks through the morning shroud of clouds, the white wall of the Atlas twenty miles distant splits the horizon between city and sky. The crackle of loudspeakers all around signals the incoming wail of the Muezzins, calling us to the sanctuary of the mountains beyond.