Morocco has a lot of capitals. First in history is Fez, first in size and riches is Casablanca, first in politics is Rabat, and first in effervescence and beauty is Marrakesh. Then there is Meknes and Tangiers. From all this variety, the international travelers have picked Fez and Marrakesh as the most important to visit; but they enjoy themselves more in Marrakesh.
Fez is gray and Marrakesh red. Fez is northern and Marrakesh southern. Fez is sometimes cold and Marrakesh nearly always hot. ProPle from Fez are pale and austere and Arab, and from Marrakesh dark and jolly and Berber. The cities are both Muslim, only 300 miles apart, and have been in the same kingdom for more than a millennium.
Marrakesh has long had the edge over Fez as a magnet for tourists and travelers, probably because of its raffish disreputableness. Jean Lacouture calls it ‟a crazy city, fat and spicy, addicted to savage feasts and an irreversible gaiety.” Moderation is a stranger to it; Hogarth characters in burnouses and jellabas — mountebanks and kef smokers and inveterate lovemakers — enjoy in Marrakesh a laugh or cry, glut or famine, drunk or hung-over existence. Even the foreigners who come tend to be either millionaires or down-and-outs.
The Sahara and the Sudan surmount the Anti-Atlas and the High Atlas to find a place in Marrakesh, and from nearby come the mountain people from this chain, the most rugged in Africa — the Welsh or Basques or Savoyards or Kurds of Morocco. Europe is an easy three hundred miles away.
With no industry to speak of, an agriculture limited to dates and apricots, and foreign tourism a minor sideline (the hotels with one star or more can accommodate only 1500 visitors), Marrakesh nevertheless has a population of more than a quarter of a million, including many Europeans, and is the second city in the country after Casablanca; which makes it no doubt the largest city in the world to be surrounded by palm trees and to be constructed entirely in pink mud, or in pink stucco over reinforced concrete in the modern buildings.
The old town of bazaars, mosques, palaces, and narrow winding streets, with its animated and lubricious population, is the basic attraction, but there are two other, complementary and European, cities of Marrakesh.
Gueliz, the new Marrakesh of cafés and markets and villas and small industries, is laid out, like downtown Washington, in circles and wedge-shaped blocks, and houses about fifty thousand Europeans and assimilés, who lead a normal smallMediterranean-city life a mile or so outside the medieval walls of this rose-red city. The tourist Marrakesh of hotels and restaurants and casinos and gift shops, with the Mamounia Hotel at the top, and at the other extreme, lodgings where one can have a bed and a basin and a hook to hang a knapsack for a dollar or less per night, is enlaced with the other two, different in spirit but not in situation.
The Mamounia Hotel has the reputation of being a gilded caravansary for millionaires, but it is not all that expensive. One hundred and eight of the two hundred and fifty rooms have large balconies which look out on the forty acres of hotel gardens and beyond to the majestic fangs of the High Atlas. It cost $14 for a double room and $12 for a single, with private bath and separate toilet room, tax and service included. A meal in the dining room is $5, and breakfast on your own balcony 54 cents. Although it is inside the walls of the old city and only a thousand yards from the Djemaa al-Fna, it is isolated by its acres of gardens from all the noise and smell of the poor and picturesque people of Marrakesh.
Marrakesh would hardly be Marrakesh without the Mamounia, if only as a place to get away from: movie people on location and other unstuffy people who have found a plausible reason for traveling to Marrakesh on an expense account usually come to prefer the less formal and often better restaurants of the new city after the first day or two. These gourmets and bargain hunters are hardly missed. At noon and in the evening, residents, transients, townspeople, cabinet ministers and members of the diplomatic corps down from Rabat, guests at cheaper hotels, international con men, handsome and available young persons, and tourist touts all assemble in the public rooms and bars of the Mamounia . You see the same sable stoles and jewelry as on transatlantic liners, but there is a higher incidence of Italian neckcloths, jellabas, and simple open collars among the black ties.
Next down the line is the Menara Hotel, with seventy-four rooms and four stars instead of the Mamounian five, and on the whole more Germans per square tile. Then there are three three-star hotels, six twostar, and two one-star, for an audited total of thirteen with 689 rooms and 389 baths. In even the flea-bag dollar-a-day places the smells and bugs are unappalling. Tile and adobe, with plenty of good fresh water flowing about, in a warm, dry climate, make comfort cheap. And five hundred francs, five dirhems, one dollar, is, after all, equivalent to ten loaves of bread as long as your forearm, five meals at a stand-up restaurant stall, fifteen shoeshines, or five chances to be a millionaire in the Toto-Foot.
The Djemaa al-Fna, that vast plaza, is among the liveliest four acres in the world despite its name, which means “Congregation of the Dead.” Harry Hopkins, who apparently did not know that the festivities take place 365 days a year, called them “a big fair - storytellers - dancers - snake-charmers - and 15,000 natives.” In the mornings, commerce is the thing, but by noon the jugglers and dancers start to set up shop, and attract a crowd by beating rhythmically on drums or bells. By nightfall the square is wholly dedicated to this extempore vaudeville, lit by torches and the exhalations of the fire-swallowers.
The show remains genuine and has not degenerated into a mere tourist attraction. Even at the height of the winter season tourists do not constitute one in one hundred of the crowd on the Djemaa al-Fna. The fact that it is a Moroccan show for Moroccans does not keep foreign visitors from standing openmouthed in the ring around a snake charmer, as hypnotized by the man’s gestures and the weird music of his crosslegged drum-and-fife band as are the deadly-looking cobras themselves.
Scholars sometimes question the “Congregation of the Dead” translation of Djemaa al-Fna, pointing out that the word Fna also means courtyard of a house, or sometimes devastation, but all Moroccans assure you that it means “the dead” — illi fanaou. Executions were once held there, before modern influences became victorious and the Moroccans took to killing people decently, in dungeons.
The Djemaa al-Fna is the jumping-off place for the bazaars and the guidebook sights. The handicraft productions in fabric, metal, and wood are often striking in design and always good bargains, particularly the filmy gold-embroidered caftans — elegant versions of the common or landlady kimono —which make any woman look ravishing (and plump), and the massive bronze trays of austere design. The rugs of the High Atlas are fairly crude, but sometimes eye-catching.
As to the sights, anyone in a hurry probably feels obliged to do tourism, guidebook in hand, amortizing the travel money over the whole gamut of palaces, schools, and mosques. With more leisure or less conscience a looser approach is more pleasant. You wander by chance, one fine morning, a little beyond the Gharnatta Restaurant and find yourself in front of the Dar Si Said folklore museum, admission free, gratuity by no means unwelcome (the custodian is a uniformed old war hawk muddled in four languages). A three-story palace, furnished more or less as it might have been when Si Said had his harem there, with a ravishing little garden and pool in the center, it is as medieval as the Alhambra, though the guidebook clearly says that it was built in the 1880s, but cosier and more domestic. Life in Marrakesh changed hardly at all between the thirteenth and the nineteenth centuries; the great confrontation in Morocco with postRenaissance modernity dates from the early twentieth century, and even now it has affected only a minority of the local people in their mentality and habits, least of all in their domestic arrangements.
The only really “must” sight is the sixteenth-century Tomb of the Saadian Kings, which the Nagel guide justly calls “the most elegant and impressive monument in Marrakesh.” It was built by the sultan who took Timbuktu in 1591. You go in by a winding passage which is so narrow that two people cannot walk abreast, and see three beautiful sober rooms with marble columns and sculptured cedar ceilings. The second, called the Hall of the Twelve Columns, is a masterwork of Hispano-Moorish | art, a cathedral mosque in miniature. The twelfth-century mosque of Yaqoub al-Mansour is right next door, but North Africans do not allow foreigners to visit mosques.
Unlike Fez, the old city of Marrakesh is relatively easy to get around in without losing your way, and most of the main squares can be reached by car if you go slowly and lean on the horn. Ten miles of red adobe walls, dating from 11 30, about sixteen feet high and six feet thick, surround Marrakesh, with forts here and there of various styles and eras. Inside the walls is the garden of the Aguedal, nine hundred acres of rich farm belonging to the crown, a favored resort of picnickers and lovers. The Menara Gardens, not far away, are essentially olive groves, with a huge basin of water at the center which looks to be a mile on each of its four sides. Water is the secret of Marrakesh, as of all great old cities, the water which for nearly a millennium has bubbled down darkly from the foot of the High Atlas in subterranean canals called ghettaras.
History has done its work — and water and profane love — in making Marrakesh what it is today; but so also have the French, with their Mamounia, their restoration of old monuments, their preservation of old gardens and planting of new ones, their insistence that no new construction be undertaken except in traditional style and in the traditional rose-red color. Marrakesh is the only place in the world where all gasoline stations are obligatorily the same color, rose-red, like everything else. Thank the French also for the good bars and restaurants and shops in the new city, the wicked, wicked Casino with its gambling and floor shows, and the excellent central market where you can buy a banana and some cream cheese if you hate the austere French breakfast which is served in hotels.
The real name of the town is not Mare-a-KESH or even the French Magh-a-KECH, but Mar-RAKSH, the r’s trilled as in Spanish or Italian. The Italians corrupted this name to “Morocco” and bestowed it upon the whole country — which in Arabic is al-Maghrib, “the West,” or al-Maghnb al-Aqsa, “the Far West.” The etymology of the name Marrakesh is obscure, at least to me. Folders sometimes state that it means “the Red.” But I have not found any indications in any Berber or Arabic dictionary of what the name might originally have meant, and the form is so foreign to the genius of either language that I cannot even propose any ingenious and inaccurate guesses. (In Arabic, “red is hamra, as in Alhambra, and in Berber, something like izuggwagh.)
Marrakesh is not really old. It was founded just four years before William of Normandy’s cavalry devastated the horse infantry of Harold on the height of Hastings. The year 1066 is a long time ago in England, even longer ago in the United States, but not so remote in countries which have a Mediterranean coastline. Carthage, not a thousand miles away from Marrakesh, goes back to the eighth century B.C., and Egypt has had more history B.C. than it has yet had A.D. Morocco is a new country in this time scale.
The Almoravids (al-Murabtin, adherents to the rib at, or religious fort), who founded Marrakesh, were originally Tuareg Blue Men in indigo veils from near Senegal. They lasted less than a century in Marrakesh, but during that time they made their city the capital not only of North Africa but of Spain as well. They were succeeded by the Almohads (al-Muwahhidin, Unitarians), a name well known to anyone who has explored Spain. Spanish and Moroccan history split off only some five hundred years ago, after five hundred years in common. The founder of the Almohads designed the Aguedal gardens and began the Koutoubia minaret. The apogee of Marrakesh’s glory came at the end of the twelfth century, just before those ungrateful infidels in Spain launched the reconquest which was soon to leave Granada as the only relic of Muslim power in Iberia. A new bunch of country lads, the Marinids, replaced the Almohads in 1269 and lasted until 1520, when, spent and effete in their turn, they found themselves replaced by still another new bunch, the Saadians.
This was only the day before yesterday in Morocco. Yesterday the Alaouites took over, while James II was sovereign of England, Scotland, and the North American colonies. They still remain on the throne. Marrakesh was theirs in 1669. Today Hassan II is the nineteenth separate Alaouite sultan (the title of King dates only from August, 1957). But it was a confused three centuries, with large sections of the country often escaping from the control of the “central” power. At one time, during the years that Princeton University was just getting started, one sultan reigned twice and another four times, with five other sovereigns to fill the gaps.
The present royal palace, Dar el Beida (White House), was built by El Hasan, who reigned from 1873 to 1894. In 1912 the French occupied Marrakesh and fixed it in Glaoui amber for more than forty years, until 1956, when occupation was ended with Moroccan independence and the death of the fierce old pasha Thami al-Glaoui, to whom the French had found it expedient to leave a more or less free hand. The new city and all the major hotels arose during the Glaoui era.
Five roads lead from Marrakesh into the mountains, and the temptation of those gleaming peaks makes it difficult for mountain lovers to stay down in Marrakesh. Only two of the roads are long, the one over the pass of Tizi n’Tichka to Ouarzazate in the real moon country of the transAtlas Sahara, and the other over Tizi n’Test toward Taroudant and Agadir. The other three end in the mountains. Oukaimeden is a ski
resort 8600 feet high at the end of Road Number Three, with three teleskis right under Toubkal, the highest peak in North Africa at 13,661 feet. The snow is usually all right for at least five months of the year. Road Number Four leads up the lovely Ourika Valley to a lot of little mountain hotels, and Road Number Five to the town of AmizI miz, above a dam and a lake. In other directions Marrakesh is 110 miles from Mogador, a lovely old - Portuguese town on the seashore, right where the Canary Current sweeps closest to Morocco, bringing warm winters and cool summers.
No, Marrakesh is not really old, but the Berber way of life practiced in and around it has changed hardly at all since long before the first Egyptian got the idea that pyramids would be nice shapes to have around. The Arab invasion beginning in the seventh century A.D. was unique; neither before nor since have other eastern or northern invaders even lapped around the edges of the Atlas: not the Hittites, Assyrians, Persians, or Parthians, nor the Greeks, Carthaginians, Romans, or Turks. The French presence was ephemeral and was never really felt in the back country or in the remote darbs and souqs of Marrakesh.
The Berbers are the most primitive pale-skinned people left in the world, excepting only the Ainus of Japan and certain tribes in the Nusairi Mountains of Syria. Before succumbing to the lure of the city, they lived in mud-fortress villages built along the courses of the mountain streams, scratched the earth with wooden plows, spoke their ancient language, and chanted, or rather shrieked, their own music, which sounds like no other on earth. Most of them are still in the bled, or countryside. Despite their nominal Islam, they worship local saints, neglect the five-a-day prayers, continue the old fertility festivities, and practice their mountain version of voodoo against their enemies. They permit their voung girls a promiscuous freedom for several years before marriage, and throughout their lives most people change spouses every year or two. And there is the betainev system (something like the goings-on in Plato’s Symposium).
Marrakesh is the city where the modern world mixes with this immemorial inner Barbary. Its walls and oldest buildings fall short of the millennium mark, but its mores remain prehistorical. Homer would feel at home. So, too, will you, since the primitiveness is not on public show. It is a beautiful town, with a view, a remarkable climate, and public facilities unparalleled in AfroAsia below the 31st parallel. The hinterland is agreeable, even spectacular. The rest is anthropology.