Africa and Middle East |
After its founding in 1062 by the Almoravids, Marrakech changed hands more than a few times: the Almohads chose to make it their capital in the 12th century and the city later prospered under the Saadians. The Ville Nouvelle, the “new” part of town, has since outgrown its moniker, having developed in 1913 after the French made the country their protectorate.
Throughout its changes in ownership, the city has always been an important trading centre and home to the sultans. Today the city is the capital of the province of Marrakech, and is a rail terminus and road and caravan centre linked to the Atlantic port of Safi. The industries that keep the city throbbing are tourism, fruit and vegetable processing, leather tanning, and the general manufacturing and processing of wool, flour, handicrafts and building materials.
The Koutoubia Mosque
The Eiffel Tower of Marrakech
The Koutoubia is the city’s most important mosque, and by far its most significant landmark. It was built in one year, 1162, by the Almohad ruler Abd el Mumin, and is held to be an exemplary building of Almohad art at its best—a cathedral mosque of classic simplicity and perspective.
The construction was quite a feat, as normally a mosque of such grandeur and architectural perfection would take centuries to build. It did take the Almohad ruler two tries, however, and the ruins of the first attempt still remain beside the present Koutoubia. The first structure was almost perfect, except the focus point or prayer niche (called the mihrab) did not face Mecca. Whoops!
The minaret is the Koutoubia’s principle feature—all 67.5 metres (221 feet) of it. It is composed of six rooms, one on top of the other. The cupola on top of the minaret is a symmetrical square structure topped by a ribbed dome and three golden orbs. These are alleged to have been made from the melted-down jewellery of Yaqub al-Mansur’s wife, in penance for having eaten three grapes during Ramadan—a time when Muslims should be fasting.
The Marrakech Jet Set
Forever the subject of western fantasies, Marrakech is home to all eccentricities—it is the ultimate oasis, if you like—where all lifestyles are enjoyed freely. A monthly salary of 400 dirhams (about US$50) for live-in staff is not unusual. According to the French Countess of Breteuil, doyenne of Marrakech’s ex-pat community, it is the last accessible paradise. The late Marie-Hélène de Rothschild, who for the last 20 years of her life spent her holidays in the region, said: “there are others, but they’re so much further away.” The pace of life is so slow that four days here are as relaxing as 10 anywhere else.
Jacques Grange, a French interior designer who has been coming to Marrakech for years, marvels at the fact that just a few hours from Paris you find yourself back in the heart of the Middle Ages. “Here you find an elegance, a quality of life that you find nowhere else. Everyone here is just a little bit crazy. I like this. Here you witness eccentricities and liberties unthinkable elsewhere.”
The varying eccentricities of our jet-set friends can be witnessed in the architecture of their homes—although they all claim to have remained faithful to Moroccan architectural tradition. Especially of interest are the 1001 Nights palace of Yves Saint Laurent and Pierre Berger, and the palace harem of American interior designer Bill Willis. The Countess of Ruspoli, a recluse with 40 servants and just as many North African greyhounds, preferred a Florentine palace out in the Ourika Valley.
The sumptuous 1920s Villa Taylor, home of the Countess of Breteuil, was a wedding gift from her mother-in-law. It combines all the details of Moroccan interior design with the comforts of a British club, and has hosted, among others, Winston Churchill, Franklin Roosevelt, Rita Hayworth and Charlie Chaplin.