Marrakech-"Morocco City",as early travellers called it -has always been something of a pleasure city,a marketplace where the southern tribesmen and Berber villagers bring in their goods, spend their money and find enter-trainment. For visitor it's an enduring fantasy - a city of immense beauty low, red and tentlike before a great shaft of montains-and immediately exciting. At the heart of it all is a square,Djemaa El Fna, really no more than an open space in the centre of the city, but the stage for a long-established ritual in which shifting cir-cles of onlookers and comedians. However many times you return there, it remains compelling. So, too, do the city's architectural attractions: the immense, still basins of the Agdal and Menara gardens, the delicate Granada-style carving of the saadian tombs and, above all the Koutoubia Minaret, the most perfect Islamic monument in North Africa.
Unlike Fes, for so long its rival as the nation's capital, the city exists very much in the present. After Casablanca, Marrakesh is Morocco's second largest city and its population continues to rise. It has a thriving industrial area which reflects the rich farmlands of the Haouz plain which surround it: notably flour mills, breweries and canning factories. And it remains the most important market and administrative centre of southern Morocco. None of this is to suggest an easy prosperity-there is heavy unemployment here, as throughout the country, and intense poverty, too -but a stay in Marrakesh leaves you with a vivid impression of life and activity. And for once this doesn't apply exclusively to the new city, Gueliz; the Medina, substantially in ruins at the beginning of this century, was rebuilt and expanded during the years of French rule and retains no less significant a role in the modern city.
The Koutoubia excepted, Marrakesh is not a place of great monuments. Its beauty and attraction lie in the general atmosphere and spectacular location -with the magnificent peaks of the Atlas rising right up behind the city, towering through the heat haze of summer or shimmering white of winter. the feel, as much as anything, is a product of this. Marrakech has Berber rather than Arab origins, having developed as the metropolis of Atlas tribes-Maghrebis from the plains, Saharan nomads and former slaves from Africa beyond the desert, Sudan, Senegal and the ancient Kingdom of Timbuktu. All of these strands shaped the city's souks and its way of life, and in the crowds and performers in Djemaa El Fna, they can still occasionally seem distinct.
For most travellers, Marrakesh is the first experience of the south and-despite the inevitable 'false' guides and hustlers-of its generally more relaxed atmosphere and attitudes. Marrakchis are renowend for their warmth and sociability, their humour and directness-all qualities that (superficially, at least) can seem absent among the Fassis. there is, at any rate, a conspicuously more laid-back feel than anywhere in the north, with women, for example, having a greater degree of freedom and public presence, often riding mopeds around on the streets. And compared to Fes, Marrakesh is much less homogenous and cohesive. The city is more a conglomeration of villages than an urban community, with quarters formed and maintained by successive generations of migrants from the countryside.