In some early European maps Marrakech appears as ‘Morocco city’, although ‘Maraksh’ is the Arabic name. The origins of the name are obscure: some see it as a corruption of ‘aghmat-urika’, the name of an early town. The city is surrounded by extensive palm groves, into which suburbs are gradually spreading. Yet there are also sandy, arid areas near, and even within, the city which give it a semi-Saharan character.
And then there are the mountains. Arriving from Fès or Meknes you run alongside the bald arid Jebilet: ‘the little mountains’, or cross them at Sidi Bou Othmane as you come from Casablanca or Rabat. Perhaps the most beautiful approach to Marrakech is on the N7, from Casablanca and Sidi Bennour, which crosses the Plateau des Gantours and the end of the Jebilet. However, from most points in Marrakech, cloud and heat haze allowing, it is the High Atlas, the Adrar (literally ‘the mountains’), which dominate. At times the optical illusion is such that the snow-covered mountain wall appears to rise from just behind the city.
Marrakech is Morocco’s fourth largest city. The population is around 1.5 million, although nearer two million including the suburbs. Its people are a mix of Arab and Amazigh; many are recent migrants from surrounding rural regions and further south. For centuries an important regional market place, Marrakech now has a booming service economy and there is still a wide range of handicraft production and small-scale industry, particularly in the médina. Out in the western suburbs are new factories.
Increasingly, tourism is seen as the mainstay of the city’s economy. Marrakech is one of the major tourist attractions of Morocco and many of the city’s large number of unemployed or under-employed supplement their incomes by casual work with tourists.
Almoravid origins and role
Marrakech was first founded in 1062 by Youssef Ibn Tachfine, the Almoravid leader, as a base from which to control the High Atlas mountains. A kasbah, Dar al Hajar, was built close to the site of the Koutoubia Mosque. Under Youssef Ben Tachfine, Marrakech became the region’s first major urban settlement. Within the walls were mosques, palaces and extensive orchards and market gardens, made possible by an elaborate water transfer and irrigation system. The population was probably a mixture of haratine or blacks from the Oued Draâ, Imazighen from the Souss Valley and the nearby Atlas, and Amazigh Jews. The city attracted leading medieval thinkers from outside Marrakech.
Marrakech was taken by the Almohads in 1147, who almost totally destroyed and then rebuilt the city, making it the capital of their extensive empire. Under the Almohad Sultan Abd el Moumen, the Koutoubia Mosque was built on the site of Almoravid buildings, with the minaret added by Ya’qub al Mansur. Under the latter, Marrakech gained palaces, gardens and irrigation works, and again became a centre for musicians, writers and academics, but on his death it declined and fell into disarray.
Merinid neglect and Saâdian revival
While the Merinids added several medersas to Marrakech, Fès received much more of their attention, and was preferred as the capital, although from 1374 to 1386 Marrakech was the centre of a separate principality. Marrakech was revitalized by the Saâdians from 1524 with the rebuilding of the Ben Youssef Mosque, and the construction by Ahmed al Mansour Ad Dahbi of the El Badi Palace and the Saâdian Tombs. Marrakech also became an important trading post, due to its location between the Sahara and the Atlantic.
The Alaouites took control of Marrakech in 1668. In the early 18th century the city suffered from Moulay Ismaïl’s love of Meknès, with many of the major buildings, notably the El Badi Palace, stripped to glorify the new capital. The destructive effects of this period were compounded by the civil strife following his death. However, under Alaouite Sultan Moulay Hassan I, from 1873, and his son, the city’s prestige was re-established. A number of the city’s fine palaces date from this time and are still visitable.
Early 20th century: Glaoui rule
From 1898 until independence, Marrakech was the nerve-centre of southern Morocco, ruled practically as a personal fiefdom by the Glaoui family from the central High Atlas. The French took control of Marrakech and its region in 1912, crushing an insurrection by a claimant to the Sultanate. Their policy in the vast and rugged southern territories was to govern through local rulers, rather as the British worked with the rajahs of India.
With French support, Pacha T’hami el Glaoui extended his control over all areas of the south. His autonomy from central authority was considerable, his cruelty notorious. And of course, there were great advantages in this system, in the form of profits from the new French-developed mines. In the 1930s, Marrakech saw the development of a fine ville nouvelle, Guéliz, all wide avenues of jacarandas and simple, elegant bungalow houses and, on acquiring a railway line terminus, Marrakech reaffirmed its status as capital of the south. It was at this time, when travel for pleasure was still the preserve of the privileged of Europe, that Marrakech began to acquire its reputation as a retreat for the wealthy.
Capital of the south
In recent decades Marrakech has grown enormously, its population swelled by civil servants and armed forces personnel. Migrants are attracted by the city’s reputation as ‘city of the poor’, where even the least qualified can find work of some kind. For many rural people, the urban struggle is hard, and as the Tachelhit pun puts it, Marrakech is ma-ra-kish, ‘the place where they’ll eat you if they can’.
North of the médina, new neighbourhoods like Daoudiate and Issil have grown up next to the Université Cadi Ayyad and the mining school. South of the médina, Sidi Youssef Ben Ali, referred to as SYBA, is an extension of the old town and has a reputation for rebellion. West of Guéliz, north of the Essaouira road, are the vast new housing areas of Massira, part low-rise social housing, part villa developments. The most upmarket area is on the Circuit de la Palmeraie. Little by little, the original farmers are being bought out, and desirable homes with lawns and pools behind by high walls are taking over from vegetable plots under the palm trees. East of the médina is the vast Amelkis development, a gated community complete with golf course and the discrete Amenjana ‘resort’. Here the money and privilege are accommodated in an area equal to one third of the crowded médina.
Future of Marrakech
The early 21st century saw Marrakech in an upbeat mood. The Brigade Touristique, set up to reduce the hassling of tourists, have been reasonably successful. Tourist activity is on the up, with the numbers of riads continuing to increase. The on-going problem for the city is how to deal with the influx of visitors. Certain monuments have reached saturation point: the exquisite Saâdian tombs, for example, are home to a semi-permanent people jam. And while being packed with people is an important part of the attraction of Jemaâ el Fna, there is the danger that the magic of the place will eventually be diluted by the massive numbers of visitors. The square is now closed to traffic for some of the time, but the roads around the edge of the médina are hellishly busy.
The ‘Venice of Morocco’?
Marrakech continues to draw the visitors in and to maintain its hold on the Western imagination. The setting is undeniably exotic, eccentricities are tolerated, and (rather less honourably) domestic help is cheap. Features in international decoration magazines fuel the demand for property; major monuments are being restored. One-time resident the late Yves St Laurent even dubbed Marrakech ‘the Venice of Morocco’ – which might seem an appropriate description on a February day with torrential rain on Jemaâ el Fna.
Still, the Red City retains a sense of rawness despite the creeping gentrification, and remains the closest Orient one can find within a few hours flight of the grey north European winter. Provided city authorities can keep vehicle pollution in check, it looks set to maintain its popularity.