vendredi 25 mars 2011

The Almoravid Koubba

Even though it is signposted opposite the entrance to the Ben Youssef medersa, the Almoravid Koubba (aka Koubba Ba'adiyn) is easy to pass by- a small, two-storey Kiosk, which at first seems little more than a grey dome and a handful of variously shaped doors and windows. Look closed, though, and you may begin to understand its significance and even fascination. For this is the only intact surviving Almoravid building, and it is at the root of all Moroccan architecture. The motifs you've just seen in the medersa -the pinecones, palms and acanthus leaves -were all carved here for the first time. The windows on each of the different sides became the classic shapes of Almohad and Merenid design -as did the merlons, the Christmas tree-like battlements; the complex "ribs" on the outside of the dome; and the dome's interior support, a sophisticated device of a square and star-shaped octagon, which is itself repeated at each of its corners. Once you see all this, you're only a step away from the eulogies of Islamic art historians who sense in this building, which was probably a small ablutions annexe to the original Ben Youssef Mosque, a powerful and novel expression of form.
Excavated only in 1952 -having been covered over amid the many rebuildings of the Ben Youssef mederssa - the koubba lies just the south of the present (mainly nineteenth-century) Ben Youssef Mosque. It is mostly below today's ground level, though standing with your black to the mosque you can make out the top of its dome behind the long, low brick wall. There is an entrance gate down a few steps, opposite the Ben Youssef Mosque, where a gardien will emerge to escort you round and sell you ticket (10dh), and may also show you the huge, old water conduits nearby, which brought water from the Atlas. If the koubba is closed, you can get almost as good a view from the roof of very ancient (but still active) hammam down to the right; the attendants will give you access for a small tip.

The Ben Youssef Medersa

One of the largest buildings in the Medina, and preceded by a rare open space, the Ben Youssef Mosque is quite easy to locate. Its medersa - the old student annexe, and their home until they had learnt the koran bu rote- stands off side street just to the east, distinguishable by a series of small, grilled windows. The entrance porch is a short way down the side street, covering the whole lane at this point. Recently restored, it is open from 9pm to 5pm every day; admission is the standard 10dh.
Like most of the Fes medersas, the Ben Youssef was a Merenid foundation, established by sultan Abou El Hassan in the fourteenth century. It was, howevere, almost completely rebuilt under the saadians, and it is this dynasty's intricate, Andalucian-influenced art that has left its mark. As with the slightly later saadian Tombs, no surface is left undecorated, and the overall quality of its craftsmanship, whether in carved wood, stuccowork or zellij, is startling. That this was possible in sixteenth-century Marrakesh, after a period in which the city was reduced to near ruin and the country to tribal anarchy, is remarkable. Revealingly, parts have exact parallels in the Alhambra Palace in Granada, and it seems likely that Muslim Spanish architects were employed in its construction.
Inside the medersa, you reach the main court by means of a long outer corridor and a small entry vestibule. To the side of this are stairs to student cells, arranged round smaller internal courtyards on the upper floors, an ablutions hall and latrine, still in evil-smelling use. Util very recently, a remarkable tenth-century Ommayad marble basin - decorated with eagles and griffins -completed the ensemble, though it has now been removed to the Dar Si Said museum.
The central courtyard, weathered almost flat on its most exposed side, is unusually large. Along two sides run wide, study, columned arcades, which were probably used to supplement the space for teaching in the neighbouring mosque. Above them are some of the windows of the dormitory quarters, from which you can get an interesting perspective - and attempt to fathom how over eight hundred students were once housed in the building.
At its far end, the court opens onto a prayer hall, where the decoration, mellowed on the outside with the city's familiar pink tone, is at its best preserved and most elaborate. Notable here, as in the court's cedar carving, is a predominance of pinecone and palm motifs; around the mihrab (the horseshoe-arched prayer niche) they've been applied so as to give the frieze a highly three-dimensional appearance. This is rare in Moorish stuccowork, though the inscriptions themselves, picked out in the curling, vegetative arabesques, are from familiar Koranic texts.the most common, as in all Moroccan stucco and zellij decoration, is the ceremonial bismillah invocation: "In the name of Allah, the Compassionate, the Merciful...".

mercredi 23 mars 2011

The souks and northern Medina

The souks of Marrakesh sprawl immediately north of Dejmaa El Fna. They seem vast the first time you venture in, and almost impossible to navigate, though, in fact, the area that they cover is pretty compact. A long, covered street, Rue Souk Smarine, runs for half their length and then splits into two lanes - Souk El Attarin and souk El Kebir. Off these are virtually all the individual souks: alleys and small squares devoted to specific crafts, where you can often watch part of the production process. At the top of the main area of souks, too, you can visit the saadian Ben Youssef Medersa -the most important monument in the northern half of the medina arguably the finest building in the city after the Koutoubia Minaret.
If you are staying for some days, you'll probably return often to the souks - and this is a good way of taking them in, singling out a couple of specific crafts or products to see, rather than being swamped by the whole. To come to grip with the general layout, though, you might find it useful to walk round the whole area once with a guide (see below). Despite the pressure of offers on Dejmaa El Fna, don't feel that one is essential, but until the hustlers begin to recognize you (seeing that you're been in the souks before), they'll probably follow you in; if and when this happens, try to be easygoing, polite and confident-the qualities that force most hustlers to look elsewhere.
The most interesting times to visit are in early morning (between 6.30 and 8am if you can make it) and late afternoon, at around 4 to 5 mp, when some of the souks auction off goods to local traders, Later in the evening, most of the stalls are closed, but you can wander unharassed to take a look at the elaborate decoration of their doorways and arches; those stalls that stay open, until 7 or 8pm, are often more amenable to bargaining at the end of the day.

Towards Ben Youssef : the main souks

On the corner of Dejmaa El Fna itself there is a small potters' souk, but the main market area begins a littel furthen beyoun this. Its entrance is initially confusing. Standing at the Café de france (and facing the mosque opposite), look across the street and you'll see the café El Fath and, beside it, a building with the sign "Tailleur de la place" - the lane sandwiched in between them will bring you out at the beginning of Rue Souk Smarine.

Souk Smarine and the Rahba Kedima

Busy and crowded, Rue Souk Smarine is an important thoroughfare, traditionally dominated by the sale of textile and clothing. Today, classier tourist "bazaars" are moving in, with american express signs displayed in the windows, but there are still dozens of shops in the arcades selling and tailoring traditional shirt and caftans. Along its whole course, the street is covered by a broad, iron trellis that restricts the sun to shafts of light; it replaces the old rush (smar) roofing, which along with many of the souks'more beautiful features was destroyed by a fire in the 1960s.
Just before the fork at its end, Souk Smarine narrows and you can get a glimpse through the passageways to its right of the Rabha Kedima, a small ramshackle square with a few vegetable stalls set up in the middle of it. Immediately to the right, as you go in, is Souk Larzal, a wool market feverishly active in the dawn hours, but closed most of the rest of the day. Alongside it, easily distinguished by smell alone, is Souk Batana, which deals with whole sheepskins - the pelts laid out to dry and be displayed on the roof. You can walk up here and take a look at how the skins are treated.
The most interesting aspect of Rabha Kedima, however, are the apothecary stalls grouped round the near corner of the square. There sell all the standard traditional cosmetic - earthenware saucers of cochineal (kashiniah) for rouge, powdered kohl or antimony for darkening the edges of the eyes, henna (the only cosmetic unmarried women are supposed to use) and the sticks of suak(walnut root or bark) with which you see Moroccans cleaning their teeth.
In addition to such essentials, the stalls also sell the herbal and animal ingredients that are still in widespread use for manipulation, or spellbinding. There are roots and tablets used as aphrodisiacs, and there are stranger and more specialized good -dried pieces of lizard and stork, fragment of beaks, talons and gazelle horns. Magic, white and black, has always been very much a part of Moroccan life, and there are dozens of stories relating to its effects.

La Criée Berbére

At the end of Rabha Kedima, a passageway to the left gives access to another, smaller square - a bustling, carpet-draped area known as La Criée Berbére (the Berbere auction) aka Souk Zrabia.
It was here that the old slave auctions were held, just before sunset every Wednesday, Thursday and Friday, until the French occupied the city in 1912. They were conducted, according to budgett Meakin's account in 1900, "precisely as those of crows and mules, often on the same spot by the same men ... with the human chattels being personally examined in the most disgusting manner, and paraded in lots by the auctioneers, who shout their attractions and the bids". Most had been kidnapped and brought in by the caravans from Guinea and sudan; Meakin saw two small boys sold for £5 apiece, an eight-year-old girl for £3 and 10 shilling and a "stalwart negro" went for £14; a beauty, he was told, might exceptionally fetch £130 to £150.
these days, rugs and carpets are about the only things sold in the square, and if you have a good deal of time and willpower you could spend the best part of a day here while endless (and often identical) stacks are unfolded and displayed before you. Some of the most interesting are the Berber rugs from the High Atlas -bright, geometric designs that look very different after being laid out on the roof and bleached by the sun. The dark, often black, backgrounds usually signify rugs from the Glaoui country, up towards Telouet; the reddish-backed carpets are from Chichaoua, a small village nearly half way to Essaouira, and are also pretty common. There is usually a small auction in the criée at around 4pm - an interesting sight with the auctioneers wandering round the square shouting out the latest bids, but it's not the best place to buy a rug - it's devoted mainly to heavy, brown woollen djellabas.

Around The Kissarias

Cutting back to Souk El Kebir, which by now has taken over from the Smarine, you emerge at the Kissarias, the covered markets at the heart of the souks. The goods here, epart from the many and sometimes imaginative couvertures (blankets), aren't that interesting; the kissarias traditionally sell the more expensive products, which today means a sad predominance of Western designs and imports. off to their right, at the southern end of the kissarias, is Souk des Bijoutiers, a modest jewellers'lane, which is much less varies than the one established in the Mellah by Jewish craftsmen. At the northern end is a convoluted web of alleys that comprise the Souk Cherratin, essentially a leather workers' souk (with dozens of purse makers and sandal cobblers), though it's interspersed with smaller alleys and souks of carpenters, sieve makers and even a few tourist shops. if you bear left through this area and then turn right, you should arrive at the open space in front of the Ben Youssef Mosque; the medersa is off to its right.

The Dyers' Souk and a loop back to the Djemaa El Fna

Had you earlier taken the left fork along Souk El Attarin - the spice and perfume souk - you would have come out on the other side of the kissarias and the long lane of the Souk des Babouches (slipper makers) aka Souk Smata.
The main attraction in this area is the little Souk des Teinturiers - the dyers' souk. To reach it, turn left along the first alley you come to after the souk des Babouches. Working your way down this lane (which comes out in a square by the Mouassin Mosque), look to your right and you'll see the entrance to the souk about halfway down - its lanes rhythmically flash with bright skeins of wool, hung from above. If you have trouble finding it, just follow the first tour group you see.
There is a reasonably straightforward alternative route back to dejmaa El Fna from here, following the main street down to the Mouassin Mosque (which is almost entirely concealed from public view, built at an angle to the square beside it) and then turning left on to Rue Mouassin. As you approach the mosque, the street widens very slightly opposite an elaborate triple-bayed fountain. Built in the mid-sixteenth century by the prolific Saadian builder, Abdallah El-Ghalib, this is one of many such fountains in Marrakesh with a basin for humans set next to two larger troughs for animals; its installation was a pious act, directly sanctioned by the koran in its charitable provision of water for men and beasts.
Below the Mouassin Mosque is an area of coppersmiths, Souk des Chaudronniers. Above it sprawls the main section of carpenters' workshops, Souk Chouari - with their beautiful smell of cedar - and beyond them the Souk Haddadine of blacksmiths - whose sounds you'll hear long before arriving.