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Notes on the Geography of Morocco: Marrakech: The Medina or Old City

We're finally ready to try the old city. Here's a description from Lippincott's Gazetteer of 1893: "Morocco [this refers to the city, not the country] was founded in 1072. It has long been hastening to decay, and is now nearly half in ruins, the result of war, plague, and wretched government." Fast forward a century, and it's still possible to see something of that ruined city, despite mountains of investment.

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Morocco: Marrakech: The Medina or Old City picture 1

Much like Sri Lanka, the medina or old city of Marrakech is shaped like a teardrop, in this case rimmed with about ten miles of wall. Within, there's a rough division north and south, with the northern two-thirds a network of often blind alleys wrapping central markets and the south dominated by the royal palace and its enclosing kasbah or inner citadel, no longer part of the royal precinct. The palace is closed to the public, and so, to non-Muslims, are all the city's mosques. Pity.

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The most celebrated mosque is the Koutoubia, the mosque of the booksellers, from the late 12th Century. If it looks faintly familiar, that may be because it was the model for the more famous Giralda of Seville and, through the Giralda, model for a hundred successors, all the way down to the Highland Park Shopping Village in Dallas, Texas. The Koutoubia is the work of the Almohads, a dynasty with roots in the Atlas Mountains. The Almohads despised the Almoravids, their predecessors, as heretics--the Almoravids had imported craftsmen from Andalusia, in Almohad eyes a sure sign of decadence--and so the Almohads destroyed everything Almoravid they could get their hands on. (Only a domed fountain survives near the Ali ben Youssef Mosque.) The Koutoubia stands on the site of what had been the Almoravid palace. The first mosque went up on the site in 1158 but was rebuilt later in the century.

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Even the Almohads tolerated some ornamentation. Up top is the jamour, gold (actually gilt copper) spheres representing the moon and stars; the biggest is two meters in diameter.

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The proportions of the tower conform to the Almohad ideal height-to-width ratio of 5:1.

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Half a kilometer to the south, the famous Bab Ageunaou was once the entrance to the kasbah or royal quarter. It's a fine example of Almohad simplicity. Old photographs show a much more intense and striking contrast between the light-colored innermost arch and the darker higher ones.

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Within the gate.

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Deeper inside the kasbah is another Almohad mosque, this one often called the Kasbah Mosque but sometimes the Mosque of El Mansour. Deviating from ideal proportions, it looks stumpy in comparison with the Koutoubia. It was begun in 1190.

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The mosque has various names. Here it is identified as the mosque of Moulay el Yazid. (Both he and El Mansour are buried nearby, in the Saadian tombs, shown in a separate folder here). The sign speaks to the energy spent by the government ensuring that the city does not continue sinking into "ruins, the result of war, plague, and wretched government."

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On the east side of the kasbah is the mellah, until the 1970s the Jewish quarter. Few Jews live there still, but in 1902 a census showed 15,000, including over a thousand Jewish seamstresses, 300 women spinners, 276 male button makers, 258 tailors, almost 500 male and female slipper embroiderers, 227 distillers or sellers of alcohol, and so on down to 159 goldsmiths, 100 women water carriers, 51 rabbis, 25 mattress makers, and seven blacksmiths. George Orwell came by in the mid-1930s and wrote: "Many of the streets are a good deal less than six feet wide, the houses are completely windowless, and sore-eyed children cluster everywhre in unbelievable numbers, like clouds of flies. Down the centre of the street there is generally running a little river of urine. ¶In the bazaar huge families of Jews, all dressed in the long black robe and little black skull-cap, are working in dark fly-infested booths that look like caves. A carpenter sits cross-legged at a prehistoric lathe, turning chair-legs at lightning speed. He works the lathe with a bow in his right hand and guides the chisel with his left foot, and thanks to a lifetime of sitting in this position his left leg is warped out of shape." Despite all this, the street plan of the mellah was, for Marrakech, uniquely orthogonal, a far cry from the blind alleys of most medina neighborhoods. (See Emily Gottreich, The Mellah of Marrakesh, Indiana University Press, 2007, for a map, aerial photograph, and census data. The Orwell essay is anthologized in Marrakech: The Red City, ed. by Barnaby Rogerson and Stephen Lavington, 2003.)

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The central element of the entire medina, oddly enough, is this large open space, an irregular not to say formless polygon called the Place Jemaa el Fna, the name--by one reading, "the place of the vanished mosque"--possibly hinting at a long-gone Almoravid building. Comparatively deserted in the daytime, the Place is seriously crowded at night. At the far side, the short minaret of the Quessabine Mosque marks the entrance to a warren of markets.

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Dinner in the Place, for well-trained tourists an obligatory station of the cross.

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Into the suq, or souk, or market.

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An uncovered section.

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The roof of the mosque of Sidi Abdel Aziz is covered with the curved green tile (qarmoud) typical of important buildings in the city.

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No end of local color.

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A quieter street.

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Evening.

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Time for repairs.

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New pipe arrives, clanking inch by inch.

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A door to a fondouk or caravanserai.

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Inside one of these caravanserais.

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Many are workshops still; others, shops.

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Others, residential.

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Much of the city is hidden behind doors.

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Those doors are themselves often works of art.

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Elegance in simplicity.

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Door to the Mosque Mouassine.

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Off the mainstreets, scores of blind and branching alleys lead to courtyard homes. James Grey Jackson came by streets like these and in 1810 wrote: "Some of the houses are built with much elegance and taste, but being all behind high walls, they are not visible from the street; and these outer walls are of the rudest construction, for every individual here is anxious to conceal his wealth, and to impress the public and the state with the idea that he is poor and distressed." (An Account of the Empire of Morocco...., Philadelphia, 1810, p. 111.)

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Jackson might have seen donkey carts, too, although not with pneumatic tires and a steel box.

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Many of the courtyard houses have been restored as small hotels known as riyads, literally gardens.

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A blind alley leading to one of them.

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Easy to get lost? You bet.

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Inside.


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