Time machine of Morocco
However, Churchill is not the only one smitten with its charm...
One of the four imperial cities of the North African nation, Marrakech was founded in 1062 by the Islamic Almoravids from neighbouring Sahara and soon became the capital of a great empire that stretched from Algiers to Spain.
This historical city stands out because of many striking features, the prominent one being the reddish hue of its buildings, which comes from the use of tabia, the red mud from nearby plains. The redness in the architecture, when combined with the colours of the city’s spices, the green of palm trees, the whites of the distant mountain snow and the blue of the sky creates a spectacular vista.
The city’s culture oozes from a melting pot of traditions and lifestyles of the native Berbers, Saharan warriors, African slaves, Arab traders and French colonisers. Over a millennium, they marked their footsteps in this arid land, tucked between the Sahara Desert and the Atlas Mountains. They powdered the cityscape with mosques, madrasas, palaces, tombs and other monuments, many of which exist in older part of the city as silent witnesses to the domain’s heyday. The Koutoubia Mosque, Kasbah Mosque, Ben Youssef Madrasa, El Badi Palace, Saadian Tombs and Bab Agnaou, a monumental gateway, are regarded as architectural masterpieces. They reflect the best of Moorish architecture, which emerged in the Iberian Peninsula during the Islamic period.
Although Marrakech now has a modern part, the old city draws visitors more. A densely packed urban settlement survives there with a way of life as seen centuries ago. The only signs of change are the use of electricity and mobile phones. Most buildings lining the city’s alleyways are dilapidated but brim with history. Some are studded with gorgeous doorways and tiled façade marked with calligraphy.
The place to be
Jemaa el-Fna is the ideal venue to discover why Marrakech is celebrated as the most magical place in Morocco. This triangular, paved area has thrived as a space for open-air markets and entertainment, dining under the stars, and even public beheading of criminals, though this ended in the early-19th century!
The day begins early here, and with that the markets open, followed by the arrival of orange juice vendors. Soon they are joined by soothsayers, henna artists, dubious dentists and snake charmers. Traditional water sellers, iconic from the old Arabic world, rescue visitors from the heat. Seated around the corner are storytellers who try to build a crowd by narrating the land’s heritage. As soon as the prayer call is heard from a nearby mosque, everything halts. People wash their hands and feet, and start praying.
Dusk signals the beginning of an enchanting hour — the area starts crawling with humanity. The atmosphere becomes frenzied with more performers arriving. Lanterns are lit around hundreds of makeshift food stalls where self-proclaimed ‘master chefs’ serve typical Moroccan dishes — from merguez sausages and harira soup to snail stew and lamb or chicken slow-cooked in tagine pots. Smoke coming out of the ovens engulfs the area, while aroma of the food fills the air. Dining beneath the stars and beside people is part of Moroccan tradition. This is how locals break social barriers and make new friends.
The night entertainment generally includes some type of circus, theatre and music. Acrobats thrill the crowd by building human pyramids, while cross-dressed belly dancers bring alive the spirit of the Arabian nights. The Gnaoua musicians play drums and castanets, and sing to hypnotise the crowd.
Being a patron
Everything is free, though tipping is necessary as performing arts is the livelihood of many who have inherited artistic skills from their ancestors. This 1,000-year-old carnival takes place every day of the year! Though a major attraction for tourists, it’s meant to be for locals to keep alive their past recitals and various human collaborations. In 2001, UNESCO recognised the carnival’s significance and declared the daily happenings as an outstanding example of world’s Intangible Cultural Legacies. One wonders how it’s possible for anyone in the 21st century to stop time and stay so lively with the past.