jeudi 9 juin 2011

The Lower Medina : the Royal palace, Saadian Tombs and Mellah

Staying in Marrakesh even for a few days, you begin to sense the different appearance and life of its various Medina quarters, and nowhere more so than in the shift from north to south, from the area to the north of Djemaa El Fna and that to the south of it. At the southern extremity ( a kind of stem to the mushroom shape of the city walls) is Dar El Makhzen, the royal palace. To its west stretches the old inner citadel of the Kasbah; to the east, the Mellah, once the largest Jewish ghetto in Morocco; while rambling to the north of it is a series of mansions and palaces built for the nineteenth-cen-tury elite.
All in all, it's an interesting area to wander round, though you inevitably spend time trying to figure out the sudden and apparently arbitrary appearance of ramparts and enclosures. And there are two obvious focal points, not to be missed : the Saadian Tombs, preserved in the shadow of the Kasbah mosque, and El Badi, the ruined palace of Ahmed El Mansour.

The Zaouia of Sidi Bel Abbes

Rue Amesfah runs for around 150m north of the intersection with Rue Baroudienne before reaching the junction of Rue Assouel (to the east) and Rue Bab Taghzout (to the west). Following Rue Bab Taghzout, you pass another fondouk, opposite a small recessed fountain known as Chrob ou Chouf ("drink and admire"), and around 500m further down, the old city gate of Bab Taghzout. This marked the limits of the original Almoravid Medina, and continued to do so into the eighteenth century, when Sultan Mohammed Abdallah extended the walls to enclose the quarter and the Zaouia of Sidi Bel Abbes.
Sidi Bel Abbes was born in Ceuta in 1130. As a marabout and a prolific performer of miracles, particularly giving sight to the blind, he is the most important of Marrakesh's seven saints, and his zaouia, a kind of monastic cult centre, has traditionally wielded very great influence and power, often at odds with that of the sultan and providing a refuge for political dissidents.
The present buildings, entry to which is strictly forbidden to non-Muslims, date largely from a reconstruction by Moulay Ismail, an act that was probably inspired more by political motivation than piety. you can see something of the complex and its activities from outside the official boundary - do not, however, try to pass through the long central corridor. The zaouia has prospered over the centuries; in 1875, it was said to possess property to the value of £200,000 and serves as a great almshouse and asylum.
It still owns much of the quarter to the north and continues its educational and charitable work, distributing food each evening to the blind.
The tomb of Sidi Bel Abbes is in the nearby Sidi Marouk cemetery and can, for a small fee, be visited by non-Muslims; look for the white koubba with the light green dome. A couple of blocks to the southwest, there is a smaller, though again significant zaouia dedicated to Sidi Mohammed ben Slimane, a Saadian marabout and another of Marrakesh's seven saints.

West to Bab Doukkala : Dar El Glaoui
A third alternative from Ben Youssef is to head west towards Bab Doukkala. This route, once you've found your way down through Souk Haddadine to Rue Bab Doukkala, is a sizeable thoroughfare and very straightforward to follow. Midway, you pass the Dar El Glaoui, the old place of the Pasha of Marrakesh and a place of legendary exoticism throughout the first half of this century . Part of it is nowadays occupied by the Ministry of Culture; visitors are allowed in at the discretion of the caretaker, but there's little to see. The main section of the place remains private.

mercredi 8 juin 2011

North of the Ben Youssef Mosque

The are a immediately north of the Ben Youssef Mosque is cut by two main streets : Rue Assouel (which leads up to Bab El Khemis) and Bab Taghzout, which runs up to the gate of the same name and to the Zaouia of Sidi Bel Abbes. These were, with Bab Doukkala, the principal approaches to the city of Marrakech until the present century and along them you find many of the old fondouks used for storage and lodging by merchants visiting the souks.

One of these fondouks is sited just south of the mosque and a whole series can be fond along Rue Amesfah - the continuation of Baroudienne - to the north and west.
Most are still used in some commercial capacity, as workshops or warehouses, and the doors to their courtyards often stand open. Some date from Saadian times and have fine details of wood carving or stuccowork. If you are interested, nobody seems to mind if you wander in.

Bab Debbagh and the tanneries

Bab Debbagh is supposedly Almoravid in design, though over the years it must have been almost totally rebuilt. Passing through the gate, you become aware of its very real defensive purpose: three internal rooms are placed in such a manner as to force any-one attempting to storm it to make several turns. The leather goods shop, on the right-hand side of Bab Debbagh, gives good views from its roof (for a small fee) over the quarter.
Looking down, you have an excellent view over the tanneries, built here at the edge of the city for access to water (the summer-dry Oued Issil runs just outside the walls) and for the obvious reason of the smell. If you want to take a closer look at the processes, come in the morning, when the co-operatives are the work; any of the kids standing around will take you in. As at Fes, a tour is an ambivalent experience. There's a beauty about the proceedings, but the traditional dyes have been in large part replaced by modern chemicals, which can cause sciatica, malignant melanoma and other internal cancers.
Bab El Khemis
Following the road from Bab Debbagh, outside the ramparts, is the simplest approach to Bab El Khemis ( Gate of the Thursday Market) another reconstructed Almoravid gat, built at an angle in the walls. The Thursday market now seems to take place more or less daily, around 400m to the north, above a cemetery and marabout's tomb. It is really a local produce market. though odd handicraft items do occasionally surface.