Second largest city in Morocco, situated in the northern foothills of the High Atlas Mountains, it is also one of the four imperial cities. The medina was designated a World Heritage Site in 1985.
Marrakesh was founded in 1062 by Youssef Ben Tachfine as the capital of the Almoravides, a Moorish people who came from North Africa to Spain in the eleventh and twelfth centuries. Under the Almoravides the town became an Islamic intellectual centre where many scholars and philosophers converged. Ancient ramparts and city gates are testament to the city’s medieval preeminence. Invaded by the Almohads in 1147, Marrakesh then became their capital. The Almohads added to the grandeur erecting many fine buildings including the Koutoubia Mosque, considered one of the greatest works of North African architecture. During the rule of the Merinids in the thirteenth century, the city went into decline after they moved their capital to Fès but it revived under the Saadian occupation. In 1551 their leader, Mohammed Al Mahdi, made Marrakesh his capital. It was in this period that the famous El Badi Palace was built over 16 years and the city became an important Saharan trade centre. After French occupation in 1913, the modern part of the city was built.
A cultural and tourist centre, Marrakesh is noted for its historic buildings, markets and festivals. The Place Djemaa el-Fna, a large square and once the main meeting place, lies at the heart of the old city. There are Jugglers, acrobats, storytellers and snake charmers. The Atlas Mountains offer winter sports and budget hotels provide cheap accommodation. Marrakesh is the rail terminus for other parts of Morocco and roads link the city with Casablanca, Rabat and the port of Safi. An international airport is about 5 km to the west. The new town, known as Gueliz, is flat, open and lined with orange and jacaranda trees. Famous for its fine leatherwork and carpets, local industries include tanning and handicrafts.
Places of Interest
The El Badi Palace, once the sixteenth century home of Sultan Ahmed El Mansour, was ransacked in the seventeenth century though its dungeons can still be explored. The National Festival of Moroccan Art takes place here every May or June. El Mansour also built the Saadian Tombs, a necropolis with over 160 tombs surrounded by palm trees and flowering shrubs. His collection of gold and marble ornaments can be found in the Dar Si Said Museum. The El Bahia Palace, built as a harem, has rooms that vary in size according to the importance of the wife or concubine. The Koutoubia Mosque, with its towering minaret built in the twelfth century, takes its name from the Arab word ‘koutoub’ meaning book. The Ali Ben Youssef Medersa, a well-preserved fourteenth century school for teaching the Koran, is the largest in North Africa.