As our plane landed in Morocco I saw earthen coloured peaks below, I knew we had reached Africa, flying over the beautiful and unique red-hued Atlas Mountains. I had seen nothing like it in my life. Although I have flown over the Himalayas, the Andes, the Rocky Mountains, the Alps, but nothing had prepared me for the amazing sight below. The High Atlas Range rise in the west of the Atlantic Ocean stretching to Algeria and Tunisia.
We landed in Marrakech, the red city, amidst colours and sounds that were new to me. I savoured the colours and sounds of Africa as I set foot on my sixth continent. As we drove down from the airport to our Riad in the old city, I couldn’t take my eyes off the streets and the array of colours rushing by. We saw men and women wearing striking djellabas, colourful robes with hoods and displays of lamps, silver teapots and trays, textiles and carpets. I felt like a child in a candy shop. I could hardly wait to arrive at the Riad and go out to explore this amazing city of colours.
Morocco is endowed with a rich culture and tradition. There is so much to see and explore. Even though our trip was brief, these are a few places that caught my eye:
1. Ben Yousaf Medersa
Founded by the Merenid Sultan Abou el Hassan in the 14th century, this ancient school of theology housed scholars to memorize the Holy Quran and learn theology. Its tiny dormitories above the central courtyard used to house hundreds of students. The beautiful architecture, the large central courtyard, the exquisite stucco work, the colourful tiles, the fine wood railings and the inner courtyards rimmed with fine wood railings reminded me of the beautiful Alhambra Palace in Andalusia. Like in Alhambra, Arabic inscriptions run throughout the Medersa, most common is the Bismillah Invocation, “In the name of God, the compassionate, the merciful.” As I leave I glance up and note another inscription over the doorway, “ You who enter my door, may your highest hopes be exceeded”. I silently respond, Amen, as I step out into the narrow street of the Medina.
2. Lazama Synagogue
Unknown to many, Marrakech has a strong Jewish heritage and community. During the Inquisition following the Reconquista, many Jews fled Europe and sought refuge in Morocco. Walking through the narrow streets of the Mellah quarter of the Marrakech Medina we arrive at the Lazama Synagogue. The blue and white architecture and colours of the synagogue stand out. A small garden in the courtyard offers a sense of peace as we hear the whispering of prayers taking place in the blue carpeted prayer hall. The original synagogue is said to have been built around 1492. There is a Jewish cemetery we could not visit due to shortage of time. The synagogue offers a glimpse into Jewish culture and life in Morocco.
3. Koutoubia Mosque, Morocco
Named after a nearby book market, the Koutoubia Mosque stands tall, the beautiful minaret rising to 70 metres, dominating its surrounding Djemaa el Fna Square. Famed for its magnificent minaret that influenced the La Giralda in Seville and Moroccan architecture, in general, is the oldest minaret of the three great Al Mohad minarets remaining in the world. It served as a model for the Giralda in Spain. The mosque is surrounded by a hub of activities during the day and at night when the lights of the minaret shine bright.
4. El Bahia Palace Marrakech, Morocco
El Bahia Palace lives by its name meaning Brilliance. Comprising of walled gardens, orange, cypress, jasmine and banana trees, the palace is a glimpse into Morocco’s opulent past. Situated at the Northern edge of Mellah, the Jewish quarter, the building stands out in beauty and elegance, incorporating intricate stucco work and mosaic. Ceramic tiles decorate the rooms. We walked the length of the garden path, admiring the fine architecture and the beautiful fountain, where we stopped to take pictures.
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5. The Green Pharmacy
A traditional Berber pharmacy seemed to have a remedy for everything including common cold and baldness. It’s a good spot to buy gifts, especially the world-famous Argan oil. We were given a private demonstration about the various oils and herbs traditionally used in Morocco and the Maghreb. Everyone was warm and welcoming. The place held a whiff of saffron, cumin and other unidentifiable herbs one associate with North Africa.
6. The High Atlas Mountains, Morocco
North Africa’s greatest mountain range runs across Morocco from the Atlantic Ocean to Algeria and Tunisia. We drove on the highest road in Africa, 2260 meters high. Snow-covered peaks rise high into the mist, palm trees and rivers peak through the clouds. Fresh
snow lay on higher ground as we drove by the picturesque landscape. Snow falls in the mountains from September to May. These beautiful mountains are visible from Europa Point in Gibraltar, a reminder that the two continents are a stone’s throw away. The High Atlas Mountains are a trekker’s paradise, popular with visitors. Standing on the mountains one feels the peaceful solitude and remoteness from civilization. Little coffee shops dot the roadside where one could stop and have Moroccan tea and cakes.
7. Ait Ben Haddou
A fortified red earth city surrounded by high walls is a traditional pre-Saharan habitat. The Ksar of Ait Ben Haddou is a UNESCO world heritage site. It’s a striking example of southern Moroccan architecture. There aren’t many inhabitants left in the kasr, but as we walk towards the top, we come across many little shops selling local goods, carpets, colourful Babouche slippers and leather bags. The view of the Atlas Mountains and the surrounding valley is simply breathtaking. Not far from the kasr is the movie set still standing from the blockbuster film the Gladiator. We hear tales of the cast and the encounter with Russell Crowe from the smiling local population. Many of them acted as extras in the film or served on the sets in the background.
8. Ouarzazate Movie Studios
The Atlas Film Studios and Cinema museum is worth a visit. Perched on the edge of the vast Sahara, named after the surrounding Atlas Mountains the Hollywood of Africa is a filming site to some famous blockbusters like the Gladiator, Laurence of Arabia, Cleopatra and the Game of Thrones. We walk through old and new sets amidst framed posters and images of Russell Crowe from the Oscar-winning film the Gladiator. Our Berber guide patiently took us through various sets and explained the history of one of the world’s largest film studios.
When in Ouarzazate it is also worth paying a visit to the beautiful 19th-century palace, the Taourirt Kasbah which has featured in many movies including the Star Wars.
9. Jemaa el Fnaa
One of the most active public squares in Africa, the Main Square in Marrakech’s Medina Quarter is popular with both locals and tourists is a hub of activities for traditional singers, musicians, storytellers and merchants sell their wares. The square is under threat of encroachment by the so-called economic development and modernization. To protect this great Moroccan heritage from vanishing, those concerned about its future set up a UNESCO project of masterpieces of the oral and intangible heritage of humanity. On New Year’s eve, we walked with thousands of locals and tourists in the Square, enjoying the colours, the lights and the smells wafting from the various local cuisines. We had tagine and couscous in a small local restaurant overlooking the square while enjoying the New Year fireworks, the traditional Berber music and songs. We hope efforts would continue to safeguard and protect these cultural and traditional spaces of North Africa.
10. The Souks in the Old City
The souks are a barrage of colours and smell: dazzling eye-catching intricate handicrafts, lanterns, pots and pans, leather bags, rich carpets and Berber rugs, and colourful embroidered babouches slippers. The fragrance of perfumes and oils fill the air, a whiff of olives here, a whiff of lemons there. We savour the smell of spices. Nuts, apricots, sweet ripe figs and oranges overflow from wooden carts. Colourful doors lead to local hammams, people sit in cafes drinking Moroccan tea served from silver teapots in colourful little glasses. The souks are a universe in their own right. There is the order in chaos, and the only way to enjoy this chaos of colours, sound and smells is to embrace it.
At the souks, one quickly learns to haggle and how to say “no”. To haggle is fun but exhausting. It seems to be a tradition shopkeepers engage in and eventually enjoy. At the end of the day, when we were a little tired, we just agreed to the first price offered by a merchant. But then he refused and said we must play the game of bargaining. He took out his paper and pen and started drawing a chart. And so we played.
The souks are a beehive of activities an full of life just like Morocco. We felt like we were walking in a beautiful dream of the Arabian Nights that have come to life. Morocco is a vast magical land stretching from the Atlantic Ocean to the vast Sahara desert. There is a lot to cover and we hope to return and explore this beautiful country some more one day.
Words and images by Nilofar Bawa