Marrakech Past and Present
Like any great city, the everyday life of Marrakech has ebbed and flowed with the tide of trade routes and migration. It has always been a brightly coloured place, with Berber, rather than Arab, origins.
First founded in 1070–72 by the Almoravids, the city today still boasts many impressive monuments from that period: from the Kasbah to the majestic Koutoubiya Mosque – with its minaret of 77 metres, one of the most picture-perfect Islamic monuments in North Africa.
In its early history, Marrakech was a centre for highly-prized goods – gold, ivory and even slaves were actively traded and bartered for. While the goods have (thankfully) changed, legacy of this early bustling commerce lives on today in the souks where you can haggle for carpets, spices and handbags. The city’s nomadic and West African influence can still be seen up-close-and-personal in the beating heart of the city, Jemaa el Fna.
This is where visitors from afar and more local Berber villagers have always found entertainment. The long-established ritual where onlookers marvel at acrobats, drummers, storytellers and comedians is ancient and continues to delight today. It is open-air theatre at its best, and no visit to Marrakech is complete without time spent there.
Today, Marrakesh is Morocco’s chicest city, attracting the jet-set from near and far. Many have taken up residence. These relatively new – and largely wealthy – residents have influenced the city by opening cafes, restaurants, riads and boutiques.
The riad craze of the past 15 years has seen many traditional homes in the medina of Marrakech turn into stylish sumptuous accommodations. Top riads (private homes in the medina built around inner courtyards) are essentially maisons d’hôtes – or upscale B&Bs – which offer a homely but elegant atmosphere, excellent hosts, hammams, pools and home-cooked cuisine.
The very best way to experience Marrakech is to stay in a riad in the heart of the medina in the old city of Marrakech. In fact, staying in a riad in Marrakech is often voted by travel experts as one of the top 10 best things to do in Morocco.
Today, Marrakech is very much a dual city, one split in two, like all Moroccan cities. The ancient walled Medina, founded by Sultan Youssef Ben Tachfine in the Middle Ages is the old part, while the Ville Nouvelle was built largely by the French in the 20th. Both have their own distinct appeals and both deserve to be explored. The Medina has age-old palaces and exotic, labyrinthine souks while the Ville Nouvelle has cool chic cafés, boutiques and lush gardens.
The city’s very best riads offer ample comfort and culture in equal measures. Usually decorated with traditional inlays, mosaics and wrought iron railings, many riads are so good that they themselves become the destination. So popular has the riad formula proved, that while in the mid-1990’s there was just a handful, today there are thousands.
King Mohammed VI’s goal of attracting 20 million tourists a year to Morocco by 2020 means that development continues apace. Yet for all of these changes, Marrakech still remains enticing, good value and exotic, attracting new and return visitors alike year in, year out.
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