The Red City

Marrakesh, also spelled Marrakech, is one of Morocco’s four imperial cities. It is the capital of the Marrakesh-Safi region. Located at the foot of the Atlas Mountains and near the Sahara Desert, Marrakesh is famous for its Medina, red walls, bustling souks, historic monuments, and vibrant culture. In this article, we explore the city’s history, culture, and attractions.

The majestic Koutoubia Minaret silhouetted against the Marrakech skyline

History of Marrakesh

Abu Bakr ibn Umar founded Marrakesh in 1070, making it the capital of the Almoravid empire. He built the city’s first walls, mosques, and palaces, attracting scholars, artists, and merchants from across the Islamic world. Marrakesh soon became a center of learning, trade, and power in the Maghreb and beyond.

In the 12th century, the Almohads conquered Marrakesh, expanding and embellishing it with the Koutoubia Mosque, Ben Youssef Madrasa, and Saadian Tombs. They also created the Agdal and Menara Gardens, still popular today.

In the 16th century, the Saadian dynasty made Marrakesh their capital, ruling most of Morocco and parts of West Africa. They enriched the city with gold, spices, and slaves, building magnificent palaces like El Badi and Bahia. They also defended the city from Portuguese and Ottoman invasions.

In the 17th century, the Alaouite dynasty favored Fez, leading to Marrakesh’s decline. However, in the 19th century, Moulay Hassan and his son Moulay Abdelaziz restored some of its glory by repairing monuments, improving infrastructure, and promoting arts and crafts.

In the 20th century, French colonialists built the modern district of Gueliz with wide avenues, cafes, and hotels. They introduced Art Deco, Art Nouveau, French cuisine, and language. Celebrities like Winston Churchill, Yves Saint Laurent, and Jimi Hendrix were drawn to its exotic charm.

Culture and Attractions of Marrakesh

Marrakesh is a city that offers a unique blend of Moroccan and European cultures, as well as a rich and diverse heritage. You can experience the authentic Moroccan life in the old town (medina), where you can find narrow streets, colorful markets, and historic monuments. You can also enjoy the modern and cosmopolitan side of Marrakesh in the new town (ville nouvelle), where you can find elegant boulevards, trendy cafes, and chic boutiques.

Some of the landmarks that you should not miss in Marrakesh are:

  • Djemaa el-Fna: Marrakesh’s main square is the busiest in Africa. Here, you’ll find snake charmers, acrobats, storytellers, musicians, henna artists, and food stalls. This lively and chaotic place is a UNESCO Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity, symbolizing Moroccan culture and tradition.

  • The Souks: These traditional markets are a maze of alleys and shops. You can find everything from spices and leather goods to carpets and jewelry. Bargain and haggle with vendors as you discover local crafts and products.

  • Koutoubia Mosque: Near Djemaa el-Fna, this is Marrakesh’s largest and most famous mosque. Built in the 12th century by the Almohads, it features a 77-meter-high minaret, a city landmark. The mosque is a masterpiece of Islamic architecture with intricate decorations and geometric patterns.

  • Majorelle Garden: Created by French painter Jacques Majorelle in the 1920s and later owned by fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent, this botanical garden and museum is a peaceful oasis. With exotic plants, fountains, and ponds, it features the striking Majorelle blue, contrasting with the greenery and the red cityscape.

  • Medina Ramparts: Surrounding the old town, these walls were built by the Almoravids and Almohads. Made of red clay, they stretch 19 kilometers with 10 gates and 200 towers. They offer scenic views of the city and mountains, especially impressive at sunset.

Surrounding Region

Marrakesh is a great base for exploring the diverse and beautiful surrounding landscapes and attractions. Visit nearby towns like Essaouira, a charming seaside resort with Portuguese influence, and Ouarzazate, a gateway to the Sahara Desert and a film location for many Hollywood movies. Take a day trip to the Ourika Valley to see Berber villages and waterfalls, or to the Ouzoud Falls, the highest waterfalls in Morocco.