We landed well after sunset at Marrakech Menara and while I had seen photos of the airport in daylight, the night view left me speechless. You wouldn’t have guessed, waiting in line at passport control surrounded by common faience work, what an amazing architectural space lies beyond. The envelope of the building consists of a white geometrical pattern with cut outs that create a play of light and shadow while the cactus landscape brings an exotic note to the picture.
Our first visit was the Koutubia Mosque, its iconic minaret at 77 meters high would be our guide on this amazing journey throughout the intricate streets of the city. The minaret, built by the Almohads, follows the typical proportions of 1:5, the height being five times the width, and bares a different pattern on each elevation. The ornamentation, made of sandstone, increases gradually towards the top and ends with the only surviving strip of original turquoise faience work. The Mosque is protected as a landmark by laws prohibiting the building of any structure, higher than a palm tree in its surroundings.
The Marrakech museum is housed in the Dar Menebhi Palace built at the end of the 19th century by Mehdi Menebhi. It belongs to classical Andalusian architecture and includes fountains, traditional seating areas, hammam and intricate tile works and carvings. The highlights of the museum were the ceilings – we spent most of our time just staring up at the mesmerizing patterns carved in timber or plaster and ornate with stained glass. The hammam functions as an arts exhibition space and its vaulted ceilings with insertions of stained glass give a haunting image to the space.
By far the most fascinating architectural experience of Marrakech was the Medrassa Ben Youssef. Formally an Islamic school with board and lodge, the Medrassa was built in the 14th century and was last restored in the 16th. As in Islamic architecture the exterior doesn’t give any hint of what awaits inside, the narrow passage that leads to the entry is just like any of the others in the old medina but as soon as you peek through the doors a multitude of patterns explode and multiply through a narrow corridor: zellinj (brilliantly coloured tiles), intricate plaster carvings, wooden carvings expanding on sequential double heights, it’s hypnotising. It’s an exciting experience to stand in the corridor facing a large wooden carved door that leads to the inner courtyard. More complicated patterns develop around the symmetrical planning of the courtyard which is centred around a pool. Layers upon layers of patterns adorn the walls of the Medrassa, strongly contrasting with the monastic rooms of the former students on the second floor, which overlook the courtyard. On exiting the building one is left in a hypnotised state and complete admiration for the craftsmanship of the Berbers.
The Saadian Tombs served initially as a burying place to the descendants of the Prophet Mohammed and it is here where in the 16th century the Saadian dynasty chose to bury their own. The exquisite decorated burial rooms were built by the sultan Al-Mansour for himself and his immediate family. Also known as the Hall of Twelve Columns, the central mausoleum is the resting place of Al-Mansour and the finest of them, with its carved marble columns, vaulted roof, calligraphy inscriptions, gilded cedar and zellinj faience work. The second mausoleum built for Al-Mansour’s mother is less impressive but it is still a wonderful blend of the usual carvings and zellinj work. There are over 100 tombs spread outside in the gardens with gravestones covered with beautiful faience work and adorned with quotes from the Qur’an.
The old medina is enclosed by high walls which were built by the Almoravides in the 12th century as protective fortifications. Made out of the traditional orange red clay and chalk, they stand at 5.8 m high and have 20 gates and 200 towers. Bab Aganaou, the most imposing gate, was built in 1185 by the Almohad Dynasty and unlike the other pink pise structures of the walls it was carved in the local blue greyish Gueliz stone. Apart from the intricate carvings of patterns and calligraphy the gate is also ‘adorned’ with storks which are considered lucky charms by locals.
Once you step outside the walls of the medina you feel like you are in a different world, wide spaces and busy roads with little to no proper crossings, some palms and cacti here and there and even more dust. As it usually happens in poor countries which undergo huge development in a short amount of time, the urbanists are not or cannot do their jobs properly. We somehow managed to cross all the streets safely and arrive at the amazing Majorelle Gardens. Designed by the artist Jacques Majorelle in the 1920s the botanical garden remains his creative masterpiece. The amazing blue he used extensively to decorate the gardens is named after him, bleu Majorelle. The tadelakt finished pathway leads one through the garden which contains plants from five continents, fountains and water ponds with more vegetation, Yves Saint-Laurent’s memorial and an Islamic Art Museum. There is also a small gallery which displays the beautiful Love posters made by YSL as New Years cards for friends and clients.
Marrakech is the city of contrasts, where opposites stand together in harmony; humans meet nature, old meets new, ying and yang if you’d have it. Sitting here in the comfort of my home and reminiscing of the time spent in the hustle and bustle of Marrakech I can finally understand and feel the love so many artists have felt for this magical city.
By Ioana Baciu