Markets, Marrakesh and More

The markets and the old cities are some of the most amazing things about Morocco. They are rich in spirit, diverse, and fascinating. In Rabat, I live about a quarter mile from the Medina- the old city, which is about one-half of square mile, surrounded by old stone and clay walls, and lived in by families for centuries. It’s a network of homes, crowded streets and alleyways, mosques and stores and booths selling almost everything from raw fish to French pastries, escargot, cactus fruits, fine leatherwork and knock-off handbags and watches.

The Badi Palace; with the mosque in the background and a crane’s next in the foreground.

This past weekend, I visited Marrakesh, and its’ much larger medina. Marrakesh is a city of about a million people, and I was there for two days, so the description obviously misses much. But, what I saw and heard was wonderful.

The city is located roughly in the center of the country- inland and a bit south of Rabat. The train ride was easy- about three and a half hours, but the terrain outside looked tough. There were miles upon miles of dry, red ground. This red color is famous in Marrakesh- it is in the brickwork and the tapestry. It’s also a stark reminder of the fact that much of this country is dessert, or nearly so. Nationwide, the country gets about 10-15 inches of rain a year, putting it on par with New Mexico.

In the souks, almost anything imaginable i sfo

Despite the climate, the land often looked attended to. The earth looked like it had been turned, soil and stones had been set in lines. Did the ground normally appear this way? Were crops on the way, following winter and spring rains? And more broadly, where do people get their water for drinking and irrigation. There are several large dams in the country- is this enough for a growing population? In the American southwest (perhaps the closest analogue geologically) there’s a saying “Whiskey is for drinking, and water for fighting.” I know there’s a different attitude towards alcohol here, but is there a similar one towards water?” Much as I like my bourbon, I know that person can live without whiskey; living without water is a lot harder.

The Badi Palace. Notice that the pools to the left are filled with water.

In Marrakesh, and Rabat, the train stations are large neoclassical buildings located in the Ville Nouvelle. These are the, “new cities,” with broad avenues and stately buildings that the French built when they took control in the early 20th century. (As a New Orleanian, I find the name a bit ironic- for in New Orleans the French Quarter is the Vieaux Carre- the old city.)

  Marrakesh’s medina, about two miles from the train station, is amazing. Like Rabat’s medina, the souk- the market- has almost everything imaginable for sale. There are endless stalls and booths with fine crafted leather sandals and cheap shoes. There is beautiful pottery- elegantly painted and cheap trinkets. There are spices piled high and carts full of oils. There are stores filled with soaps, perfumes and argon oil. it’s vaguely reminiscent of the French Market in New Orleans- times a million.

The central square as nightfalls

Towards the south of the medina is Old Badi Palace, built in the late 1500s and home of sultan when Marrakesh was Morocco’s capital. The palace is now mostly ruins, but still elegant, and amazing. In the center are large pools, some filled with orange trees, and others with water. This helped answer my earlier question- the rich and powerful had water. Or was it the other way around- those with water became rich and powerful. In the American west- it’s a combination of both.

Finally, in the center of the medina is Jemaa el-Fnaa- the old city’s central square. The square is south of the souks, and east of the grand Koutoubia mosque, and surrounded by stores, and restaurants, and fruit vendors.  It’s crowded with vendors, visitors, tourists, musicians and artisans- a scene that is particularly vibrant at night. There are musical groups with drummers, guys with steel castanets, stringed instruments that look like predecessor to the banjo, and violins. The musicians tell stories between songs, and dancers swing when the music starts. As an adopted New Orleanian, it’s so wonderful to travel somewhere where  drummers are accompanied by horn, to see dancers swing to a street beat, to experience music that is simultaneously group and individual.

The musicians and dancers come out at night.

One response to “Markets, Marrakesh and More”

  1. Another fascinating travelogue with great pictures! Looking forward to the next one – Dad


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