What comes to mind when I say Marrakesh? Well, for starters, when I hear the name Marrakesh, my mind is immediately submerged by thoughts of Arabian nights, Mediterranean scents, spices and flavors, camels, oasis, couscous, men in gabar, beautiful mosques, beautiful women, sandy dunes, etc… So how far am I from the truth and what is the origin of the name Marrakesh?
Located near the foothills of the snow-capped Atlas mountains in Morocco, Marrakesh was the most important of the four former imperial cities in Moroccan history. Spelled Merrakec in Berber or Marrakech in French, the name has its origin from the Amazigh (Berber) words ‘mur (n) akush‘ which means “Land of God.” Another interpretation will call it ‘the land of journey.’ From Neolithic times, the city had been inhabited by the Amazighs people, and was founded in 1062 by Abu Bakr ibn Umar, sovereign and cousin of Yusuf ibn Tashfin. Led by the Almoravids, and later the Almohads, many mosques including the world-renowned Koutoubia mosque were built during the 12th century with Andalusian influence. Several palaces were built whose main characteristics were the carved domes, and lobed arches. The Andalusian influence merged with Saharan elements as well as West African, and all that was synthetized to give a very original architecture specially adapted for the weather of Marrakesh. The city became the capital of the Almoravid emirate which went from the shoreline of the Senegal river to the center of Spain, and from the atlantic littoral up to Algiers. The red walls of the city, built by Ali ibn Yusuf in 1122-1123, were built from red sandstone gave Marrakesh’s nickname as the ‘Red City‘ or the ‘Ochre city‘, as well as the ‘pearl of the south‘ or the ‘door to the south.’
Marrakesh grew rapidly and established itself as a cultural, religious, and trading centre for the Maghreb and sub-Saharan Africa; Jemaa el-Fnaa or Djemaa el-Fnaa is one of the most famous squares in all of Africa and is the center of the city activity and trade, and has been declared UNESCO World Heritage site since 1985. After a period of decline, the city was surpassed by Fez, in the early 16th century, Marrakesh again became the capital of the kingdom and reestablished its former glory especially during the reigns of the wealthy Saadian sultans Mohammed El Mahdi, Abu Abdallah al-Qaim and Ahmad al-Mansur who embellished the city with sumptuous palaces such as the El Badi Palace (1578), and restored many ruined monuments. Under the Saadian reign, Marrakesh regained its position as a central point linking the Maghreb, the Mediterranean basin, and Sub-Saharan Africa via its caravan routes.
Today, Marrakesh is one of the busiest cities in Africa; it is a big tourist destination, and a major economic center. It has the largest traditional Berber market (souk) in Morocco, with over 18 souks selling anything from traditional Berber carpets to modern consumer electronics. It is also home to the Cadi Ayyad University, which is one of the major universities of Morocco.