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Ultimate guide to historical Marrakesh

Marrakesh in Morocco is a fairytale sort of place with harsh social realities. It’s an orientalist dream on the surface, but turns out layered and complex. While historically exiting it has a bitter aftertaste of poverty and desperation.

The entire medina, or old-town, encircled by its well-preserved 12th century city walls, is UNESCO world heritage for its notable monuments and history and it’s here you want to stay and be, preferably in classical, riad-style accommodation – not in the modern, French-colonial new town just outside the walls.

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The medina has a distinctly medieval feel about it. The mud brick houses look the part. The street plan is and lots of people even wear a monk-style, hooded robe known as a jallabah. If not for the endless mopeds thundering the alleys the illusion would be complete. Misfortune comes in many shapes in the streets: beggars of all kinds, Syrian refugees and disabled people trying to get by through selling trinkets. Then there is a lot of history to experience and here is my personal guide.

City walls and Bab Agnaou gate
The walls have been heavily restored and, as it seems, not too light-handed, but they are authentic to their basic, 12th century outline and certainly impressive. You won’t get up in them but they are well worth seeing and not the least the beautiful though battered Bab Agnaou gate leading to the royal kasbah.

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Djemaa el-Fna
The grand, medieval market area Djemaa el-Fna in Marrakesh is like nothing else you ever saw. It’s a beating heart of the city and full of vendors, magicians, professional storytellers, pickpockets and masterful musicians. It’s UNESCO world heritage for good reasons. Read more about it in this post.

Koutoubia Mosque
The large Mosque on the western side of Djemaa el-Fna is closed to non Muslims just as all the mosques in the city, but the most interesting thing about it is the minaret anyway. This one was constructed at the same time in the 12th century as the Giralda in Seville and the Hassan tower in Rabat but the Marrakesh one is said to have been the original. It’s a symbol of the city, an architectural feat and a sort of sample sheet for details of medieval Islamic architecture.

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Central souqs
To the north of Djemaa el-Fna is “the central souqs”, a labyrinth bazaar of narrow alleys full of small shops. This is an historical shopping area of amazing extent and strolling around you will get lost for sure.

Mellah
Interestingly, there has been a Jewish quarter in the city since late medieval days – the Mellah. It was encircled by a separate wall and closely situated to the royal palace. Both things because of the importance of the Jewish community to Muslim rulers who at the same time wanted to keep it both protected and under control.

The city changes character in the Mellah and it’s interesting to see though its not really a Jewish quarter anymore.

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Badi palace
The splendor of Badi palace was once of legendary proportions, having been built by 16th century sultan Ahmed al-Mansour eager to spend the ransom paid by the Portuguese after his late brothers victory in the Battle of the Three Kings in 1578. It was constructed using some of the most expensive materials of the time and by superior craftsmen. It was stripped of all its riches just shortly after construction, however, when a sultan from a new dynasty took it all away to his new capital city Meknes.

Today it’s a superb ruin, well worth a sunny walk trying to figure out which rooms are which and what the ruined pavilions might have looked like in full splendor.

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Kasbah and the Saadian tombs
The Bab Agnaou gate of the city walls was the main gate to the Kasbah, the royal compound, or city within the city, and Badi palace was also inside it as well as the old royal palace in Marrakesh which is vast, now privately owned and not open to visitors.

The main thing to see in the Kasbah is the impressive and beautiful tombs of the Saadian royal dynasty and their retainers who resided in the city in the late 16th and early 17th century. The tile work is stunning and most of all so when combined with white Carrara marble and carved plaster in the Chamber of 12 pillars.

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Bahia palace
This palace was begun by grand vizier Si Moussa in the 1860s and represents the full, modern splendor of 19th century Morocco. It was planned and decorated by the best artists of their time and is a full-blown dream of a palace with extravagant harem, a grand courtyard with marble-and-tile bonanza, Andalusian orange garden and all.

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Ali ben Youssef Medersa
This 14th century medersa, or theological college, is a true treasure of Islamic art with most impressive decorations in Hispano-Moorish style. Unfortunately it was closed at the time of my visit, but there’s always a next time.

Musée de Marrakech
Finally the Marrakesh museum. It has been a palace, a school and then a museum for about 20 years. It’s interesting to see as a palace and mostly so the impressive inner courtyard with an immense bronze lamp hanging from the roof. The collections are less dazzling but worth a look.

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