Marrakech History

The founding of Marrakech: The Haouz plain around Marrakech had been inhabited from Neolithic times at least by simple Berber farmers, whose stone implements have been found in several places. The arrival of Arab conquerors and Islam in northern Morocco in the 7th and 8th centuries a.d. probably affected life little in the Haouz—at that time Sijilmassa, further to the east, was the main southern town. It was not until 1070 that the advancing Saharan Almoravid army, under Abu Bakr, having conquered Sijilmassa and Fès, camped some 200 m north of the actual Koutoubia Mosque, where Abu Bakr decided to found a new city. A plain, a river, a well, and suitable stone for building rendered the choice propitious. A stone fortress and the first adobe mosque were built and the new town was called Marrakech. This name was mentioned for the first time in an 11th century manuscript in the Qarawiyin library in Fès and meant "the country of the sons of Rush" (black people), since many of the troops accompanying Abu Bakr were black Africans from Mauritania. Abu Bakr had to leave precipitously and his cousin, Yusef ben Tachfin, took control, finished the mosque, had houses built, minted gold coins, and arranged for the gold and ivory laden trans-Saharan caravans to arrive in his new creation. Marrakech was to be the Almoravid capital for 100 years, the center of power that extended from the Atlantic Ocean to Algiers, and from the Tafilalet to the River Ebro in Spain. His son, Ali ben Yusef, introduced Andalusian craftsmen to Marrakech, built the ramparts and many of its gates, a new palace, a mosque, and a garden. Ali is credited with the introduction of the underground water canal system (rhettara) used to irrigate the gardens.

  Rise and Fall. In 1125, the fiery and pious preacher Ibn Tumert settled in Tinmal, in the mountains south of Marrakech, preaching his moral reform, and continuing his revolt against the Almoravids installed in Marrakech. Ibn Tumert died around 1128, but his followers, the Almohads, captured the nearby town of Aghmat and laid an unsuccessful siege to Marrakech in 1130. They succeeded, under Abd el-Mumen, in capturing the city in 1147, after a long siege. By that time the population was famine-stricken and the Almoravids' Christian mercenaries tired and discouraged. Abd el-Mumen had the good idea of promising to spare the lives of the mercenaries, but the Almohads nevertheless killed off at least 7,000 inhabitants and sacked the town, destroying many public and religious buildings. In exchange, they built the first Koutoubia mosque {on the site of the Almoravid fortress) and created the Menara Gardens. Abd el-Mumen's son, Yusef, enlarged the town and made it into a center of Arab philosophy, attracting countless poets and scholars. Yusef s son, Yacub el-Mansour (known as "the Victorious"), followed the same policy, building a kasbah, an imperial city, palaces, mosques, a hospital and gardens, while continuing his conquests in Spain. Commercial links with Andalusia were encouraged, with Marrakech exporting leather, sugar, and ceramics.

After this period of prosperity at the end of the 12th century, Marrakech declined with the death of Yacub el-Mansour in 1199. For half a century, dynastic troubles adversely affected the town. The situation became worse when a new family, the Merinids, who had made their capital in Fès, captured the town in 1269. The trans-Saharan gold route abandoned Marrakech for Fès, and when the Merinids seized Sijilmassa in 1274, the gold market was lost, trade declined, houses and palaces fell into ruins, two-thirds of the town became uninhabited, and the remaining population fell victim to a rapid Portuguese attack as far as the town gates in 1522. It may have been with relief that the famine-struck inhabitants of Marrakech welcomed the arrival of a new dynasty, the Saadians, in 1525.

Renaissance. With the Saadians, firmly established as the new rulers of Morocco, Marrakech came to life again. At first only their southern capital, the town became the capital of all Morocco once they had consolidated their empire. Two Saadian sultans were mainly responsible the renaissance of Marrakech in the second half of the 16th century: Mulay Abdallah and his younger brother, Ahmed el-Mansur. After the victory over the Portuguese at the Battle of the Three Kings in 1578, the latter started ambitious building projects in Marrakech, helped by the capture of Timbuktu and three tons of gold in 1591, the sugar exported to Europe from the sugarcane plantations, and the production of Moroccan leather goods, known as maroquin (morocco). In Europe, Morocco—the shortened form of Marrakech—was used to designate the whole empire. Between 25,000 and 70,000 people lived in Marrakech at that time. The Jewish population, living in its mellah, was the most important in the country, and the Europeans were diplomats, businessmen, or, sometimes, prisoners. In the first half of the 17th century, this affluence was compromised by insecurity, palace revolutions, and wars.

Then a new dynasty came to the fore, in the shape of the Alaouite family from the Tafilalet. The new sultan, Mulay Rashid, captured Marrakech in 1669, but preferred to make Fès his capital. His successor, Mulay Ismail, established his capital in Meknès, removing from Marrakech all traces of his Saadian predecessors. It was not until the middle of the 18th century that Mohammed III restored many of the buildings that had been destroyed and built a new palace. He improved existing gardens and created new ones, including that of the Mamounia (now part of the Mamounia Hotel grounds). His successors, Hassan I and Mulay Abd el-Aziz, continued to build new and imposing palaces in Marrakech. Recognizing the help given to him by the head of the Glaoui family, chiefs of the Berber Glaoua tribe, Hassan I made the Glaoui Pasha of Marrakech. Glaoui kasbahs already occupied strategic points, both in the High Atlas and in the south, but now the family wielded almost unlimited power.

The French Protectorate.  In 1907, Mulay Abd el-Hand, Abd el-Aziz's half brother and rival, set himself up as a champion against European penetration into Morocco and declared himself sultan in Marrakech. Indeed, hostility to the establishment of the French Protectorate in 1912 was strong in south Morocco. The Saharan leader, El Hiba, attempted to resist the French advance but his troops were defeated at Sidi Bou Othmane, just north of Marrakech. The town's position as capital of Morocco was now lost in favor of Rabat. The French relied heavily on Thami el-Glaoui to keep order in southern Morocco and during his heyday many foreign statesmen, including Winston Churchill, were entertained by the Glaoui in Marrakech or his High Atlas palace of Telouet. The French called him the "Black Panther." In 1953, with his help, the French Resident-General organized a so-called popular uprising against the legitimate sovereign, Mohammed V, who was deported to Madagascar. On Mohammed V's triumphal return in 1955, the Glaoui crept back on his knees before his king and asked to be forgiven. He fell into disgrace, his goods were confiscated, and his kasbahs crumbled into ruin. Few tears were shed for him among the people he ruled over in Marrakech and the south, and he died a year later. Much of his wealth came from the hashish trade, prostitutes, and mining rights, and his harem is said to have contained 200 women or more.

Marrakech today. Following customary French practice, the new town (ville nouvelle), with its central districts of Gueliz and Hivernage, is distinct from the old city (medina). About 1 ½ km separates the old from the new. Pinkish-red ramparts surround the medina, which contains the souks and the Place Jemaa el-Fna. Hivernage contains mostly hotels and apartments, while Gueliz is the active commercial center.  The town has become an essential des­tination for holidaymakers and tourism is its main source of income.

Marrakech is the red city.  A local Berber legend has it that when the Koutoubia Mosque was built in the city's heart, it poured so much blood that all the walls, houses and roads were forever marked.

One of the most impressive monuments in Marrakesh is the Koutoubia Mosque and its minaret (250 ft/77 m tall).  It was built in the same epoch as Seville's "la Giralda" and Rabat's "Tour Hassan", the Koutoubia, dating from the 11th century, is a masterpiece of Hispanic- Moorish art. 

The ornately decorated Saadian Dynasty tombs is another important attraction. Sixty-six of the Saadians and their closest family members, lie buried under the two main structures.

The Badii Palace bas long been regarded as a wonder of the Muslim world. It was the sovereign Ahmed El Mansour Dahbi who undertook construction of the palace following his victory over the Portuguese in the year 986 of the hejira (1578), a victory well-known in the Western World under the name of the Battle of the Three Kings. The major construction work went on for sixteen years. 

The walls of Marrakech are fortress-like; often 20 to 30 feet thick and 30 to 40 feet high. There are half a dozen prominent gates.  the main Gate of Guinea (Bab Aguenaou), was built by order of Sultan Yaacoub el Mansour in 1185. An impressive design made from local blue granite, it is a prime example of Moroccan decorative art from the Almohad period (1150-1250).

Marrakech  |  Morocco History