As part of our travel package, we selected a half-day tour of the old city of Marrakech.
Our tour guide introduced himself as a veteran guide with 25 years of experience. We quickly concluded that those 25 years had severely tired him out.
At our first stop, the Menara Gardens, he shared two sentences of background and dates. Then he led us on a walk around the huge reflecting pool. We asked follow-up questions about the gardens and their history. He provided another sentence. Then we tried some general questions about Marrakech. Three more sentences. Then we forgot about him and just enjoyed the scenery. At the next stops on the tour, he regurgitated the five sentences from our first questions. We realized that he had a limited set of fun facts in his memory bank. He was like those GPS-triggered tour buses that play recordings depending on the location. And like a tour bus, as soon as he delivered his lines, he strode off to the next talking point. We had to rush through some beautiful places. We rationalized, saying, “At least we know where we want to come back to spend more time.”
Menara Gardens dates from the 12th century. Its original purpose was a training ground for soldiers, a place to bathe, and a retention pool for irrigation of orchards and fields. Today, residents of Marrakech gather here with their family and friends for long picnics. They relax in the shade of the olive trees.
Koutoubia Mosque was just a photo stop. (Gotta keep moving.) At 77 meters / 253 feet, the minaret is the tallest structure in Marrakech; no other buildings can be taller. In 1147, the Almohad Caliphate took the city from its founders, the Almoravid dynasty. The conquerors systematically destroyed the mosques and monuments from the vanquished rulers. We can still see the decapitated foundation pillars from the original mosque next to its replacement.
Note the bracket construction next to the top finial of the minaret. That bracket points toward Mecca, 4,853 km / 3016 mi away.
This gate announces the gorgeous Bahia Palace. Si Moussa Ba Ahmed, the grand vizier of the sultan, built for the palace for himself in the late 19th century. The vizier imported craftsmen from Fez; the palaces and monuments of Moorish Spain — Granada, Sevilla, Cordoba — inspired the designers.
The Saadian Tombs: While this necropolis was established in the 15th century, what we see today dates from the Saadian dynasty (1524-1659).
The most prestigious mausoleum is the hall of the twelve columns. This room houses the tomb of the sultan’s son Ahmed El Mansour. The cedar ceilings and stuccos are finely worked, the graves are made of Carrara marble. Some tombs display a poetic epitaph. That of Princess Zorha is magnificent: “Here is the tomb of the noble lady, new moon, wonder of virtues.
The dynasty that succeeded the Saadians labored to erase all traces of their predecessors. They walled off the pavilions of this necropolis, and filled the volume to the top with rocks and rubble. It was only in 1917 that the location of the Saadian tombs was rediscovered, and the work of removing the fill started.
In addition to our unenthusiastic tour guide, we enjoyed surprise commercial traps. First “opportunity” was the Herboristerie Bab Agnaou. In a small room bedecked with mysterious vials, a salesman in a pharmacy-like white coat extolled the virtues of everything from saffron to argan oil to cooking spices to some herb touted to be the Moroccan viagra. After his schpiel, he stood expectantly, awaiting our passionate purchasing. We bought a couple little scented things just to get out.
Our next commercial “opportunity” was the Ensemble Artisanal Twizra, a souvenir and rug shop. Our experience there warrants its own post. To be continued…
Still to explore — after the pandemic: