Traversing the alleyways and souks of Marrakech, particularly in
the Medina (Old City), it is easy to believe you have been
transported back in time or stumbled onto a movie set for a
medieval 'Arabian nights' production. It is this enchanting,
fairy-tale quality that brings thousands of sightseers to the
most-visited of Morocco's three Imperial Cities, Marrakech. The
heart of the Medina is Djemaa el-Fna, an irregular 'square' where
everything seems to happen and the place to which tourists are
drawn time and again to soak up the carnival-like environment.
Tourism, though, has not spoilt the atmosphere: if anything, it has
only added to it. The modern side of Marrakech (called Gueliz or
Ville Nouvelle), with its luxury hotels, banks and streets bursting
with motor scooters, blends well with the past in a metropolis made
up of people from the Berber Atlas tribes, Mahgrebis from the
plains, and Saharan nomads.
Marrakech was founded in 1062 by Youssef bin Tachfine of the
Almoravid dynasty, and his son perfected the city by bringing in
architects and craftsmen from Cordoba to build palaces, baths,
mosques and a subterranean water system. The city walls were raised
from the red mud of the plains, with the snow-covered peaks of the
High Atlas Mountains forming a backdrop for the city, though they
are often hidden by the heat haze.
One of the many ways to soak up the sights and sounds of
Marrakech is in one of the hundreds of horse-drawn carriages (known
as caleches) that are for hire, but it is also necessary to take in
the Medina's souks on foot, plunging into the hurly-burly maelstrom
of passages where tradesmen ply various crafts, from cloth dyeing,
copper beating, and leather working to herbalists, perfumers and
slipper makers; and where shopkeepers cajole passing tourists into
taking a look at their glorious array of colourful crafts.