My favourite place: Marrakech, Morocco

For the latest in our historical holiday series, Sarah Crook takes in the sights, sounds and smells of Morocco’s former imperial capital

Marrakech's medina

This article was first published in the January 2018 edition of BBC History Magazine

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“Don’t bring sunglasses,” was the curious advice given to me before my first trip to Marrakech. Wary, I packed them anyway but they stayed firmly stashed in my suitcase. For this is the way to take in Marrakech – unblinkered, and able to drink in the details of the city: mounds of spices and dried herbs in the souks, each a different shade of gold and red; the intricate mosaics of turquoise, white and navy that garland the walls and floors of riads and restaurants; the clean lines of the Koutoubia mosque against the azure sky: and the regular calls to prayer that ring out from mosques across the city.

“Come hungry,” would be the advice I would add to this. Marrakech has an engaging and expansive food culture, with delicious tagines and couscous in abundance. The pride in the local ingredients is clear if you attend one of the city’s many cookery classes. I’ve spent a happy morning at Maison MK, learning how to make tagines and chopping and spicing a range of attractive Moroccan salads. The restaurants here bridge the European and the Moroccan, reflecting the city’s long history of cosmopolitan self-confidence, and also the incursions of European colonialism. This influence exerted itself in Morocco throughout the 19th century, with France, Britain and Spain all attempting to make colonialist encroachments into the country. These actions culminated in the Treaty of Fez, signed in 1912, which established French colonial rule, with a Spanish protectorate situated in the north and south.

Moroccan independence was declared in 1956, returning the popular Mohammed V (1909–61) to power from his enforced exile in Madagascar to establish monarchical rule. The French influence can still be felt, but the city retains a distinctive and north African sense of self. Enjoy this in a patisserie, where I recommend the almond-filled and syrup-drenched pastries.

Marrakech’s fascinating history is inescapable on its busy streets, particularly those within the ancient city walls. The city has roots that extend back beyond the 11th century, and was shaped by two important Islamic Berber dynasties: the Almoravids and the Almohads.

Initially established as an Almoravid town in c1070, Marrakech then became the capital city of the Almohad empire during the 12th and 13th centuries. From here it went into decline before reviving between the 1520s and 1660s, when it became an important trading centre. During this period the Saadian tombs were established by Ahmed el Mansour, sultan of the Saadi dynasty. These beautiful tombs, forgotten until 1917, are well worth a visit to admire the glistening mosaics and shimmering light.

The only Almoravid building to survive intact in Morocco is the Koubba Ba’adiyn (Almoravid koubba), which was excavated in 1952. The two-storey monument – below today’s ground level – is decorated in traditional Moroccan style, with the pine cones, palms and acanthus leaf motifs that can also be found on later buildings in the city.

From here you can wander into the medina (old city) – a Unesco World Heritage Site – to enjoy the city’s street life in the busy Jemaa el Fna (the central square) and find the souks. Most visitors inevitably emerge from the markets laden with plates, bowls and possibly a carpet or two, so go armed with plenty of cash and some comfortable shoes. Haggling is expected, but if you approach it in a spirit of competitive conviviality you can come away with some lovely things – having promised to return for another mint tea on your next visit.

Duck into the Marrakech Museum after this to admire sculptures, ceramics and art in a late 19th-century palace, or potter to the Ben Youssef médersa (the beautiful religious school attached to the Ben Youssef mosque), which was founded in the 14th century and rebuilt in the 16th. Or head to the Mellah, the city’s traditional Jewish quarter, which dates back to the 16th century. By the mid-1930s, the area was home to nearly 20,000 Jews, although this population had rapidly declined by mid-century.

Marrakech comes to life at night, when an effusion of vitality rouses the central square. Watch from one of the many roof terraces that surround the Jemaa el Fna, enjoying a breeze drifting from the High Atlas mountains, where Barbary lions once roamed. The mountains are just an hour away, and although I usually find the city keeps me in its confines, the hiking is wonderful and you can take organised excursions into the Sahara desert – often by camel.

This urban juxtaposition of vivacity and calm, of noise and quiet, and chic modernity and inalienable history makes Marrakech a wonderful city to visit. Go. Bring me back some pastries!


Advice For Travellers

Best Time To Go

Marrakech can swelter in the summer, so stick to spring and autumn in order to soak up the sunshine while avoiding the pressing heat. The winter months can be quite cool, so if you do visit in December or January be sure to pack some jumpers.

Getting There

Flights land at Marrakech Menara airport, which is just a short way from the city and taxis are plentiful. Alternatively, you can fly into Essaouira on the coast, spend a few days eating the wonderful seafood, and then catch a bus that will get you to Marrakech three to four hours later.

What To Pack

Light clothing and comfortable shoes so you can wander the city. Leave adequate space in your suitcase for the things you will buy in the souks.

What To Bring Back

A bartered treasure from the souks and some of the wonderfully aromatic spices on sale.

Readers’ Views

Stay in the old quarter. Plenty of fantastic riads@davidkcowie

Visit the Saadian tombs, and read Edith Wharton’s In Morocco@VGodini

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Sarah Crook is junior fellow in history at New College, Oxford. Read more of Sarah’s experiences at historyextra.com/Marrakech