Thursday, December 5, 2013

“To visit Marrakech is still like turning the pages of some illuminated Persian manuscript all embroidered with bright shapes and subtle lines.” - Edith Wharton

Marrakech is a major city in the northwest African nation of Morocco. It is the fourth largest city in the country after Casablanca, Fes and Rabat, and is the capital of the mid-southwestern economic region of Marrakech-Tensift-El Haouz. Located to the north of the foothills of the snow-capped Atlas Mountains, by road Marrakesh is located 580 km southwest of Tangier, 327 km southwest of the Moroccan capital of Rabat, 239 km southwest of Casablanca, and 246 km northeast of Agadir. Marrakesh is the most important of Morocco's four former imperial cities. Inhabited by Berber farmers from Neolithic times, the city was founded in 1062 by Abu Bakr ibn Umar, chieftain and cousin of Almoravid king Yusuf ibn Tashfin. In the 12th century, the Almoravids built many madrasas (Koranic schools) and mosques in Marrakesh that bear Andalusian influences. The red walls of the city, built by Ali ibn Yusuf in 1122-1123, and various buildings constructed in red sandstone during this period, have given the city the nickname of the "Red City" or "Ochre City". Marrakesh grew rapidly and established itself as a cultural, religious, and trading centre for the Maghreb and sub-Saharan Africa; Jemaa el-Fnaa is the busiest square in Africa. After a period of decline, the city was surpassed by Fes, but in the early 16th century, Marrakesh again became the capital of the kingdom. The name Marrakech originates from the Amazigh (Berber) words mur (n) akush, which means "Land of God." It is the third largest city in Morocco after Casablanca and Rabat, and lies near the foothills of the snow capped Atlas Mountains and a few hours away from the foot of the Sahara Desert. Its location and contrasting landscape has made it an enviable destination in Morocco. The city is divided into two distinct parts: the Medina, the historical city, and the new European modern district called Gueliz or Ville Nouvelle. The Medina is full of intertwining narrow passageways and local shops full of character. In contrast, Gueliz plays host to modern restaurants, fast food chains and big brand stores.

1. Ali Ben Youssef Madrasa

The Ben Youssef Madrasa was an Islamic college in Marrakech, Morocco, named after the Almoravid sultan Ali ibn Yusuf (reigned 1106–1142), who expanded the city and its influence considerably. It is the largest Medrasa in all of Morocco. The college was founded during the period of the Marinid (14th century) by the Marinid sultan Abu al-Hassan and allied to the neighbouring Ben Youssef Mosque. The building of the madrasa was re-constructed by the Saadian Sultan Abdallah al-Ghalib (1557–1574). In 1565 the works ordered by Abdallah al-Ghalib were finished, as confirmed by the inscription in the prayer room. Its 130 student dormitory cells cluster around a courtyard richly carved in cedar, marble and stucco.

The carvings contain no representation of humans or animals as required by Islam, and consist entirely of inscriptions and geometric patterns. This madrasa was one of the largest theological colleges in North Africa and may have housed as many as 900 students.
One of its best known teachers was Mohammed al-Ifrani (1670-1745). Closed down in 1960, the building was refurbished and reopened to the public as an historical site in 1982. Impressive architecture and decoration however a lack of information and guidance. Its a lovely place and quite well preserved building. Worthwhile visiting especially those who love and appreciate the beautiful buildings. The Madrasa was a kind of college where adolescents went to study the Koran among other things.

You can buy a ticket to visit the Madrasa only or a slightly more expensive ticket to see the Marrakesh Museum of Islamic Art as well. There are guided tours in various languages. It's worth every dirham!

2. Station Marrakesh

Station Marrakesh is a railway station in Marrakesh, Morocco; it is currently the southern end-point of the Moroccan railway system. The current station was opened on August 10, 2008. From Marrakesh there is a direct rail link to Casablanca and Fes. Station Casablanca Voyageurs offers connections to Tanger or Oujda. The old station, built in 1923 during French protectorate time, was located along Hasan II Avenue and served as a terminus of the rail system. It was within walking distance of the new city-centre (French Quarter) district and Royal Theatre.

In 2008 a newly constructed station was opened adjacent to the old building and tracks were extended. The new station, located 100 meters closer to the city-centre district (and directly opposite the Royal Theatre), is larger and was built to serve the planned extension of the rail network towards Agadir and Laayone. It contains several shops and fast food restaurants, including a KFC. An Ibis Hotel is located directly adjacent to the station.
The railway station is very modern and clean and there are a few restaurants where you can eat - if not there then across the road. The coffee place is good and the guy there even changed euros to local currency when I asked him. There are banks there too but you need your passport. The station has some eating options if you want to grab a bite before leaving. The station is right next to the Supratours bus stop where you can catch a bus for other destinations. make sure you purchase tickets in advance for dates which could be a holiday.

Every day are 16 direct trains to Fes via Casablanca Voyageurs station and another two direct connections to Tangier. Via Casablanca Voyageurs transfers to the main East-West link to Oujda (for Algeria) are possible as well as the airport shuttle to Mohammed V International Airport. Besides the two direct trains Tangier can also be reached with a transfer in Casablanca. The new station was built to facilitate planned high-speed trains and the network will be expanded towards Agadir and Laayone. In the future, trains will reverse using a new triangular junction west of the station to continue south.

3. Koutoubia Mosque

The Koutoubia Mosque is the largest mosque in Marrakech, Morocco. It is located in the southwest medina quarter of Marrakech. The mosque is ornamented with curved windows, a band of ceramic inlay, pointed merlons, and decorative arches; it has a large plaza with gardens, and is floodlit at night. The minaret, 77 metres in height, includes a spire and orbs. It was completed under the reign of the Almohad Caliph Yaqub al-Mansur (1184 to 1199), and has inspired other buildings such as the Giralda of Seville and the Hassan Tower of Rabat.

You can see the Koutoubia Mosque from pretty much anywhere in the City, but up close and certainly when it's calling to prayer, it really is quite a magical, mystical, spiritual and even in some strange way, deeply romantic and mesmerizing place to be. You'll only walk around the grounds of the mosque for a few minutes, but it will be like sitting in the gardens with the sun on your face, the birds singing in the trees, the constant sounds of the City and horns in the distance and then the spellbinding call to prayer, that will be one of the long lasting and indelible memories of Marrakech that you'll always remember with great fondness.
The mosque is located about 200 metres west of the city’s the Jemaa El Fna souq, a prominent market place which has existed since the city's establishment. It is situated on the Avenue Mohammed V, opposite Place de Foucauld. During French occupation, the network of roads was developed with the mosque as the central landmark, in the ville nouvelle. To the west and south of the mosque is a notable rose garden, and across Avenue Houmman-el-Fetouaki is the small mausoleum of Yusuf ibn Tashfin, the builder of Marrakech, a simple crenellated structure. In the mosque's esplanade, which backs onto Jama el Fna, the ruins of the original mosque can be seen.

Koutoubia Mosque's minaret tower is a landmark of Marrakech. All the names and spellings of Koutoubia Mosque, including Jami' al-Kutubiyah, Kotoubia, Kutubiya, and Kutubiyyin, are based on the Arabic word koutoubiyyin, which means "bookseller". The Koutoubia Mosque, or Bookseller's Mosque, reflects the honorable bookselling trade practiced in the nearby souk. At one time as many as 100 book vendors worked in the streets at the base of the mosque.
The mosque is made of red stone, formerly plastered, and has six rooms in succession, one above the other. It was designed so as to prevent anyone gazing in from the minaret to the harems of the king. Even in the modern day, such restrictions are enforced by blocking Google Earth access to Moroccans. Architectural details of the old mosque and the new mosque are identical except for the orientation. Hence, what is true of one holds true for the other, though the first mosque is now derelict. It is designed in a traditional Almohad style and the tower is adorned with copper globes. The building, of bricks and sandstone, measures 80 metres in width towards the east and 60 metres to the west along a north to south direction.

Brick work is found in the columns, arcades, middle of the qibla wall, and niche of the mihrab. Sandstone is used for the external walls built in the southern, eastern and western directions. The stone wall on the northern side abutted the old Almoravid fortress wall. The surfaces are enlivened by simple designs. All window sections have horseshoe-shaped and multifoil arches, arranged within a rectangle. A diamond shape is formed in the upper part as result of overlapping arches in woven design.
There are six interior rooms, one above the other. Wrapping around them is a ramp which can be used by the muezzin to reach the balcony. The prayer hall is in a "T" shape. It is large, to the south, and abuts the courtyard at its northern end. The prayer hall is a hypostyle with more than 100 columns which support horseshoe-shaped arches along the parallel naves. The mihrab niche is on the qibla wall in the prayer hall along the widened central nave, for which entry is from the courtyard. There is a wide transverse nave that is aligned along the qibla wall at the south end of the prayer hall. Three wide central naves are aligned perpendicular to the hall to the north.

The central naves are flanked by seven smaller parallel naves. In all, there are seventeen parallel naves. The longitudinal naves, about 36 metres in length, are six times the width of the large transverse nave. The extensions of these naves are from the four outermost naves on either side of the prayer hall annexes and the courtyard.
The minaret is designed in Umayyad style and was constructed of sandstone. It was originally covered with Marrakshi pink plaster, but in the 1990s, experts opted to expose the original stone work and removed the plaster. The minaret tower is 77 metres in height, including the spire, itself 8 metres tall. Each side of the square base is 12.8 metres in length. The minaret is visible from a distance of 29 kilometres. Its prominence makes it a landmark structure of Marrakech, which is maintained by an ordinance prohibiting any high rise buildings (above the height of a palm tree) to be built around it.

The muezzin calling the faithful for the adhan (prayer), is given from the four cardinal directions at the top of the minaret. Its design includes a high angular shaft with a smaller but identical superstructure resting on it, topped by a dome. Many features of the minaret are also included in other religious buildings in the country, such as a wide band of ceramic tiles, alternate pattern work on each side, and Moorish-styled scalloped keystone arches . Decorative carvings envelop the arched fenestration. Above four-fifths of its height, the minaret has stepped merlons capping the perimeter of the shaft, at which level there is an outdoor gallery approached by ramps. Each side of the tower is designed differently as the window openings are arranged at different heights, conforming to the ascending ramp inside the minaret.

4. Saadian Tombs

The Saadian tombs in Marrakech date back from the time of the sultan Ahmad al-Mansur (1578-1603). The tombs were discovered in 1917 and were restored by the Beaux-arts service. The tombs have, because of the beauty of their decoration, been a major attraction for visitors of Marrakech. The mausoleum comprises the interments of about sixty members of the Saadi Dynasty that originated in the valley of the Draa River. Among the graves are those of Ahmad al-Mansur and his family.

The building is composed of three rooms. The most famous is the room with the twelve columns. This room contains the grave of the son of the sultan's son, Ahmad al-Mansur. The stele is in finely worked cedar wood and stucco work. The monuments are made of Italian Carrara marble. Outside the building is a garden and the graves of soldiers and servants.
It is worth visiting early in the morning to avoid the organised tours that descend on the site. The actual location is quite compact so it really is worth going before things become too busy. The area would benefit from more information sighs but a half decent guide book provides you with enough information. There are many stray cats living in or near the tombs.

If you are not on a tour please take a cab. There is a "hole in the wall" entrance that winds into a large courtyard. The tombs are arrayed around this courtyard. Definitely worth a visit to get a feel for another slice of the complex and interwoven history. Previously walled up, these well preserved series of tombs are beautifully detailed surrounded by a lush courtyard garden.

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