Africa Leaders Magazine

MARRAKESH, Morocco – “The Red City”, First of Morocco’s Four Imperial Cities

Marrakech, also spelled Marrakesh, chief city of central Morocco. The first of Morocco’s four imperial cities, it lies in the centre of the fertile, irrigated Haouz Plain, south of the Tennsift River. The ancient section of the city, known as the medina, was designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1985.

Marrakech gave its name to the kingdom of which it was long the capital. It was founded in the mid-11th century by Yūsuf ibn Tāshufīn of the dynasty of the Almoravids, and it served as the Almoravid capital until it fell to the Almohads in 1147. In 1269 Marrakech passed to the control of the Marīnids, whose preferred capital was the northern city of Fès. Although Marrakech flourished while serving as the capital under the Saʿdīs in the 16th century, the succeeding ʿAlawite rulers resided more often at Fès or Meknès; however, the ʿAlawites continued to use Marrakech as a military post. In 1912 Marrakech was captured by the religious leader Aḥmad al-Ḥībah, who was defeated and driven out by French forces commanded by Col. Charles M.E. Mangin. Under the French protectorate (1912–56), Marrakech was for many years administered by the Glaoui family, the last of whom, Thami al-Glaoui, was the chief instigator of the deposition of Muḥammad V in 1953.

Surrounded by a vast palm grove, the medina in Marrakech is called the “red city” because of its buildings and ramparts of beaten clay, which were built during the residence of the Almohads. The heart of the medina is Jamaa el-Fna square, a vibrant marketplace. Nearby is the 12th-century Kutubiyyah (Koutoubia) Mosque with its 253-foot (77-metre) minaret, built by Spanish captives. The 16th-century Saʿdī Mausoleum, the 18th-century Dar el-Beïda Palace (now a hospital), and the 19th-century Bahia royal residence reflect the city’s historical growth. Much of the medina is still surrounded by 12th-century walls; among the surviving gates to the medina, the stone Bab Agnaou is particularly notable. The modern quarter, called Gueliz, to the west of the medina developed under the French protectorate.


The souks of Marrakech are often a highlight for any traveller. Indeed, the bustling atmosphere, the bargains, the thrill of haggling and the assault on the senses is often a big part of the reason why people take a trip to Morocco’s Red City.

An early history of souks in Marrakech

Traditionally an open-air market that locals relied on for their essential items, a souk would have travelling merchants passing through them once a week, once a month or at other infrequent periods. Marrakech’s strategic location at the heart of Morocco, however, meant that many traders came through the city every day.

Sitting on important trading routes, people passed through here from the north, south, east and west. Located at the centre of ancient commerce networks, goods found their way to Marrakech from all over Morocco, surrounding African countries and farther afield. Merchants often travelled by camel or donkey – usually with a heavily laden caravan.

The vast number of traders visiting Marrakech is a major reason why the medina has so many gates – access to the main part of the city was made easier for merchants. The Bab Doukkala gate, for example, was used by merchants from El Jadida to the northwest of Marrakech – and nearby areas.

The medina’s large gates opened early in the morning and closed every evening. Merchants who arrived late had to spend the night outside of the protective walls. Those who arrived in time typically slept in mosques or fondouqs – accommodation for merchants and their animals. The trading action took place at Jemaa el-Fnaa – the city’s large square – with numerous sellers offering an array of goods.

The growth of Marrakech’s souks

As the local population grew, vendors started to hold smaller souks close to main communities. Using donkeys, camels and carts to navigate the labyrinth-like streets of the medina, trading areas close to home made shopping much easier for locals. Thus, the convenience also increased the number of items getting bought – neighbourhood souks typically sold everyday essentials before they grew in popularity.

The smaller neighbourhood souks gradually grew, as more traders saw the opportunity to increase sales. Many souks expanded so much that they merged with nearby souks.

Local artisans and craftsmen often lived and worked close to others in the same trade. Communities of artisans grew – hence why there were traditionally some souks dedicated to particular goods. People sold their wares from or near their workshops. This is why today’s visitors will still find separate areas in some souks – like the Carpet Souk close to Rahba Lakdima.

How to navigate the souks

Unless you stay fairly close to the web of streets branching off Jemaa el-Fnaa, it’s very easy to get lost in Marrakech’s souks. The narrow alleyways – with overflowing items that snake off to more thin passageways with even more goods – can all start to look very similar. Many are covered too, making it even more difficult to get a good idea of where you are.

Wandering the souks with a local guide is the best way to explore if you’re concerned about getting lost, especially if time is short – be sure to check if your guide is licensed.

If exploring independently, a map is essential. Grab a paper map from your accommodation or print one from an online source. Alternatively, use GPS on your mobile device as most major streets have signs for their names. If road signs and landmarks – such as mosques and monuments – can’t easily be spotted, walk through busier areas until you find a sign or landmark. Or, walk until you are outside and can see the towering minaret of Koutoubia Mosque as a reference point.

Asking for directions to the souks

Getting lost is generally part of the fun of exploring the energetic souks. If you start to panic and really need to ask somebody for directions, try to approach families or females as opposed to younger men. While not dangerous, it’s a lot more common for younger males to make a friendly offer to take you to where you want to go.

Although this might seem like a blessing, it often ends with you paying a substantial ‘tip’ – after possibly having been carted to several stalls, from where the ‘helpful’ stranger is trying to score commission on a sale along the way.

Another option is to go into a small shop and ask for help. Shop owners generally can’t leave their premises and are less likely to try and lead you in exchange for payment. Of course, you could also ask somebody to call your accommodation to come and collect you if you’re in a real muddle.

Shopping in Marrakech’s souks

The huge variety of items on sale in the souks of Marrakech makes some people travel with an empty suitcase, ready to load up with goodies to take home.

Pottery stalls can be found in abundance – tagine pots in all sizes, serving plates, soup bowls and small tagine-like dip holders are especially common. Jewelled glassware and ornate teapots can make a pretty addition to your dining room back home, too.

Vibrantly coloured aromatic spices are often among the first things people think of when imagining the souks of Marrakech.

Traditional woven Moroccan carpets and handmade Berber boucherouite (rugs) are proudly displayed at numerous stalls – along with colourful lamps and lanterns hanging from the rafters and surrounding doorways.

Leather goods are often popular with visitors – especially wallets, belts, bags and shoes that are handmade in the city. Looking for a few new pieces to add to your wardrobe? Marrakech’s souks have clothes in all shapes, sizes and colours – from t-shirts, shorts and jeans through to the more traditional kaftans and djellabas – a kind of robe.

Islamic items of clothing are found in abundance, such as abayas (a robe-like dress) and head coverings – pick up a pashmina to complement any outfit. Balgha (Moroccan slippers) are also widely available, as are pieces of beautiful silver jewellery, artwork, shisha pipes, accessories, traditional musical instruments, toys, souvenirs and much, much more.

Tips for being safe in Marrakech

As with most places where a lot of people congregate, pickpocketing and bag snatching can be a problem. Fasten bags, keep a tight grip and make sure your wallet is in a secure place – not your back pocket.

Haggling is an essential part of shopping in the souks. Keep things light-hearted and friendly while negotiating and if you can’t settle on a price, it’s okay to walk away. However, don’t agree on a price and then not go through with the sale – this is considered bad etiquette.

As the constant calls and attempts to entice buyers can become a little tiresome after a while, why not take a break and head to a café for a breather?

Other related activities to enjoy in Marrakech

Head to Marrakech’s tanneries to see how leather is worked before being crafted into the items you see for sale in the souks. Watch various artisans and craftsmen in their workshops, sewing, hammering, chiselling, sculpting, cutting and applying their skills in such exceptional precision.

Experience the lively atmosphere of Jemaa el-Fnaa in the evenings, admire the various monuments and ornate doorways that can be found around the souks and try local delights from food vendors. Marrakech’s sweet, tasty orange juice is not to be missed.


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