29 Jan Marrakech: A brief history
Marrakech medina is a maze of small lanes, souks (markets) and squares, and although it has been here for many hundreds of years many people visit without thinking a lot about its origins. So we thought it would be useful to give a brief introduction to this long and fascinating history.
Marrakech was founded by the Almoravids, a Berber tribe from the Atlas mountains, in the mid eleventh century, around 1062. The walls and general layout of the roads, lanes, souks and square set up by the city’s founders are still largely intact. Under the Almohads, during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, Marrakech became a cosmopolitan centre of culture and learning became the capital of an empire that not only united all of modern Morocco, but also most of Spain and much of Algeria. It remained as such under the rule of the Almohads and then the Merinids until 1465. Under the rule of these indigenous dynasties, Marrakesh was a major political, economic and cultural centre of the western Muslim world.
The sixteenth century saw the arrival of rulers of Arabic origin. The wealthy Saadiens were responsible for unifying Morocco as one country in the late sixteenth century and in 1659 the Alouites came to the throne. Alouite rule continues today under the current sultan of Morocco, King Mohammed VI.
In 1912 the Treaty of Fes established Morocco as a French Protectorate under the notional sovereignty of the then sultan, King Mohammed V, the grandfather of the current king. The French built the modern commercial and residential quarter of Gueliz outside the medina walls, which was completed shortly before Morocco regained full independence in 1956. In 1985 the Marrakech medina was given UNESCO world heritage site status, in recognition of its historical importance and how well its layout and monuments have been preserved.
Marrakech remains one of the four imperial cities of Morocco, the others being Rabat, Fes and Meknes. King Mohammed VI keeps a residence here and there are several other royal buildings which you can spot by the multicolored guards from the various police and armed forces of Morocco – some quite spectacular and interesting to see (although photos are not recommended). While royal palaces are not open to the public, there are many other beautiful and interesting historic sites to visit in the medina.
Vast monuments dating back to the origins of Marrakech still stand today. The Koutoubia mosque, with its 77-metre-tall minaret, is an essential monument of Muslim architecture and is still the most recognizable landmark in modern Marrakech. Jamaa El Fna Square, also dating from that era and now inscribed on the Representative List of Intangible Cultural Heritage, remains the heart of Marrakech both physically and culturally (see box). The Kasbah, medina ramparts and several gardens also date from this original period.
Under the later Arabic rulers many more monuments were constructed in Marrakech including the Badi Palace and the Ben Youssef Madrasa (koranic school). The Saadien Tombs monument – containing the graves of prominent members of the sixteenth century dynasty – is one of the most notable sites from this period of Moroccan history and among the finest examples of Islamic art in Marrakech.