Palaces And Tombs In Marrakesh, Morocco

Trip Start Oct 21, 2009
Trip End Jan 12, 2010

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Tuesday, November 3, 2009

11.3.09                  Palaces And Tombs In Marrakesh, Morocco

We hit Café du Livres – the Internet café inside a used English bookstore – at around 9:30am this morning, and stayed there until nearly noon, enjoying a great breakfast and generally catching up on some emailing and other Web stuff.  At noon, we went back to Hotel du Pacha and checked out – then left our luggage there and headed back down to the Medina (Old City).

Today, we avoided the lively Djemaa El-Fna and most of the souqs, instead focusing on a few specific sites to tour.  Since many sites are closed over the long lunch hour, we first had a nice lunch overlooking the metalworkers' square, which was surrounded by high, mud-brick buildings.  Several of the posts atop these surrounding buildings had huge storks’ nests on them, and the square seemed to be a gathering place for storks!  I never did figure out if there was some history or reason behind these storks, and/or why they chose this particular square to call home, but I did find out that Dar Bellarj, Marrakesh’s premiere arts centre nearby, once was used as a stork hospital (bellarj is Arabic for stork).  Connection?!

After lunch, we walked through a different area of the souqs containing more spice markets, and had quite a few offers of "free demonstrations" by Marrakechis as to what the different spices were, what they smelled like (“come, smell, there is no snakes hiding here”), what they were used for, etc.  In addition to the rich tumerics and deep paprikas, the dried lavenders and the sweet mints – we also were shown sandalwoods, ambers and musks, used as natural perfumes – tiny bushels of toothpicks, grown in nature that way – and small pressed pots of pigments, where a wet finger run across the top produces sharp reds and bronzes to wipe across one’s lips!!!  We also (finally!) learned that when pressed to buy something at the end of these “free” demonstrations, saying “Not today, Inshallah,” worked much better than “No, merci”!

When we had passed enough time in the spice markets for Bahia Palace to reopen after lunch, we stopped and toured it.  La Bahia (“The Beautiful”), located at the lower end of the Medina, was built over a period of fourteen years by Morocco’s top artisans in the 1860s.  The palace itself occupies more than eight hectares and contains 150 rooms.  Through the front gates, we walked through gardens with banana trees and dripping palms before arriving at the building itself.  [Side note: after about an hour in the spice markets, again running for our lives in the wake of busy mopeds and wailing donkeys pulling carts, arriving inside the palace walls was an unbelievable relief!  No whizzing mopeds to jump away from – no terror on the streets.  However, I told Murray it was almost like being on a boat for a while and then finally stepping foot on land – you still feel the water rolling underneath you for a while.  So, even within the sanctuary of the palace gardens, I still felt myself on high alert for errant moped drivers for quite some time!]

Back to Bahia Palace – it was incredible.  The ceilings were painted, gilded, and inlaid with the most intricate woodworking I had ever seen; the pathways, floors, and many walls contained gorgeous, hand-painted mosaic work; and the doors, window boxes, and other room trimmings all consisted of hand-painted and carved woods. 

The vizier was a busy guy – we toured the opulently ornamented harem, which once housed his four wives and 24 concubines!  We also viewed the Court of Honour, where crowds of people gathered to beg for the vizier’s mercy.  Over the palace’s history, the place was looted several times – especially after the vizier died – so the palace is no longer furnished.  Still, the embellishments speak for themselves – we were blown away by how intricate and detailed the rooms were.

After Bahia Palace, we headed toward the Saadian Tombs about 1km away, managing to get lost in the narrow Medina streets for a while – a very easy thing to do.  (A nice boy helped navigate us out of a few backstreets, for the mere price of five dirhams!).  The tombs were quite interesting.  They were built by Saadian Sultan Ahmed el-Mansour ed Dahbi in the years leading up to the sultan’s death in 1603.  The sultan spared no expense in creating his tomb, called the Chamber of the 12 Pillars – all Italian marble and gilded plasterwork archways lined in gold!

Elsewhere at this site, the sultan played favorites and housed all the alpha-male princes in the elaborately decorated Chamber of the Three Niches, while relegating to outside garden plots some 170 chancellors and (of course!) all the wives.  (Still, many of the outside plots are very pretty, containing mosaic work and surrounded by lovely gardens.)  The sultan did honor his mother, however, by building her a gorgeous mausoleum containing intricate woodwork.  And, all of these tombs, including the sultan’s, are vigilantly guarded by Morocco’s numerous stray cats!

[Interestingly, a few decades after the sultan’s death in 1603, a successor sultan ordered the Saadian tombs to be walled up forever, wanting to keep his predecessors out of sight and mind.  So, for more than three hundred years, the tombs sat untouched, until an aerial photograph exposed them in 1917!]

After the tombs, and feeling a little peaked by the intense sun and all the walking, we returned to Café du Livres for a some down time, a few snacks, and more Internet access, before going back to our hotel for our bags and then heading to the train station.  Yesterday, we bought tickets for the 7pm tonight train ride to Fez – where we arrive at 2am tomorrow!  Fortunately, (1) we now have confirmed accommodations in Fez, and a driver from the Riad Dar Dmana will be there to pick us up at that early (late!) hour.  (PS – a riad is a guesthouse with great Moroccan hospitality!)  And (2), I am typing this journal entry happily ensconced in a 1st class train cabin, which is clean, does not smell, and (blissfully) is blowing cold A/C on us.  We have learned from our past mistakes, you see.
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