Marrakesh is all about its monumental public square, known as Djemaa El-Fna, and the labyrinth of souqs (markets) that surround it. Which means if you, like me, are entirely uninterested in markets, or perhaps slightly repulsed by them, then you might consider skipping Marrakesh altogether.
But skipping Marrakesh would be a huge mistake, just skip the markets 😉
Founding of Marrakesh
Marrakesh was founded in 1062 CE by the Almoravids, a Muslim dynasty formed of Berber tribes from the Western Sahara.
At their peak the Almoravids ruled a vast stretch of northwestern Africa, all the way from Senegal to Algeria. They even controlled part of Spain.
Marrakesh established itself as the capital of the Almoravid Emirate.
And as the Almoravids thrived, so too did Marrakesh.
Ben Youssef Mosque
Ben Youssef Mosque is thought to be the oldest mosque in the city.
It was constructed circa 1070, but was demolished in 1147 when the Almohads captured the city.
The mosque was rebuilt in 1563.
City Walls and Bab Agnaou
Marrakesh’s city walls (6m high and 19 km in length) were erected in 1123. The walls, which include 19 gates and 200 towers, have a soft, dusty-red quality to them – a product of the type of clay used in their construction. The colour of the walls has given Marrakesh one of its many monikers: the red city.
Bab Agnaou is one of the most famous of the city’s gates. It provides access to the Royal Kazbah and El Badi Palace.
In 1147 the Almohads, a rival band of Berber tribes, captured Marrakesh. They executed every living member of the Almoravid Dynasty, and slaughtered more than 7000 members of the public just for the hell of it.
As soon as they had the city in their grips they set about inscribing their mark on it. They destroyed Ben Youssef Mosque and began construction of Koutoubi Mosque, seen above, which continues to be the largest mosque in the city, with a minaret reaching 77 metres in height.
Koutoubi Mosque proved of such architectural distinction that several other famous minarets have since been modelled in its like, including Giralda in Seville, Spain, and Hassan Tower in Rabat, Morocco.
This enormous public square, the largest and busiest in Africa, existed long before the arrival of the Almohad Caliphate. It was the Almohads, however, during their remodelling of the city, who shaped the square into what you see today.
Come to Djemaa el-Fna in the heat of the day and you’ll be greeted by snake-charmers and – in 2017 at least – thousands of hawkers selling selfie-sticks and fidget spinners.
In the evening the square transforms into a dining precinct. Mobile stalls and portable barbecues are dragged onto the sun-heated pavement; fresh seafood, meat skewers, and sausages the most popular fare.
Local musicians siphon through the marketplace, the sound of rhythmically-tapped tambourines and drums filling the night air.
The tanneries represent a somewhat less savoury part of the souqs. I was quite intrigued by the idea of the tanneries and was more than willing to pay a few dirham to be allowed to enter, walk around, and take photos within the premises.
Be warned though; this part of Marrakesh has a bad reputation. Many tourists report that they have been aggressively hassled at the tanneries, and have left sooner than planned following an unpleasant experience or two.
The Souqs of Marrakesh
In all, there are 18 major souqs in the city. To be honest, I didn’t pay all that much attention to the distinction between the souqs and as a result the city felt like one big souq.
But that didn’t make Marrakesh unenjoyable.
In fact I’d say most people will still enjoy Marrakesh, even if, like me, they are entirely uninterested in shopping.
Practical information and how to reach Marrakesh:
Read more on the Medina of Marrakesh in the UNESCO World Heritage listing.