Last month we published a selection of five of the best-known buildings in Marrakech illustrating different periods of the city’s rich cultural heritage. Here are another five buildings, monuments and gardens which should also be included on one’s list of ‘what to see in Marrakech’.
1. The Musée Dar Si Said. This museum of Moroccan Art is situated in a 19th century palace built for Si Saïd ibn Moussa, the Minister of War, in the mid 19th century. It surrounds a splendid courtyard, full of flowers and shady cypress trees, with a gazebo and fountain.
The exhibition rooms around the courtyard display a wide range of items from the long history of arts and crafts including carved doors, extraordinary stucco artistry and mosaics, plus jewellery, rugs, wedding costumes, leatherwork items and pottery. One can also visit the domed reception room and the former harem quarters.
2. The Ben Youssef koranic school. Situated close to the centre of Marrakech, this fascinating building is a former Islamic college where students came to learn and study the Koran. Founded in the 14th century, it was rebuilt in the 16th century during the Saadian Dynasty. Student cells and other rooms are disposed on three floors around a central courtyard dominated by a large pool in which students carried out their ablutions. The larger reception rooms are notable for their beautifully decorated and carved cedar beamed ceilings, marble floors and intricate plaster stuccowork. Wall and floor tiles, set in geometric patterns, bear inscriptions and quotations from the Koran. The school closed in 1960 but was restored and opened as an historical site in 1982.
3. The Palais des Congrès (conference centre). This contemporary building, resplendent with Islamic decorative overtones, is the city’s principle exhibition centre, home to major events such as the International Film Festival, numerous conferences and trade fairs. The space, which can accommodate up to 5,500 people, is located in the elegant Hivernage district on Boulevard Mohamed VI, home to many of the smartest hotels and residences.
4. The public gardens of Marrakech (Menara, Agdal and Majorelle) Established in the 12th century, the Ménara Gardens were built both as productive orchards and as the personal pleasure gardens of the caliph. A centrally located pavilion structure, originally erected during the Saadien dynasty, was rebuilt in the late nineteenth century. The Ménara Gardens are some 720 meters wide, east to west, and 1.25 kms long, north to south. Most of the site is occupied by orchards of olive, cypress and fruit trees but the main feature of the Ménara Gardens is the large central reservoir built to irrigate them, the water itself originating in an upland aquifer in the Atlas mountains.
Today the Ménara Gardens, listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1985, are accessible to the public and continue to serve as a relaxing and picturesque oasis a short distance from the crowded Médina although, at the time of their construction, they were a couple of kilometers beyond the city walls.
Covering a site of some 400 hectares on the southern edge of the medina, very close to the Royal Palace and our hotel, Les Borjs de la Kasbah, The Agdal Gardens consist of a vast orchard of olive, fig, citrus, pomegranate and apricot, together with a large lagoon and other small pools, all fed by an ancient system of underground irrigation channels from the Ourika Valley in the High Atlas. When originally created, the gardens were the sultan’s retreat of choice for lavish picnics and boating parties. As with most historic sites in Morocco, the Agdal Gardens were consecutively abandoned and rebuilt over the centuries, the latest incarnation dating from the 19th. On a clear day the view from here over countryside to the Atlas is majestic, especially in winter when the peaks are snow-capped. Together with the Ménara, the Agdal Gardens were listed by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site in 1985.
The Majorelle Garden was designed by expatriate French artist, Jacques Majorelle, in the 1920s and 1930s. The particularly striking shade of cobalt blue (bleu Majorelle), for which he is best known, both in his paintings and decoration of the garden buildings, is named after him.
The garden is most notable for its collection of cacti and ornamental pools as well as varieties of bamboo, indigenous trees and more than 15 bird species native to North Africa. The garden has been open to the public since 1947 and, from 1980, was owned by Yves Saint- Laurent and Pierre Bergé who later donated it to the city of Marrakech.
5. Almoravid Koubba. Dating from the 12th century, this is the sole surviving Almoravid building still intact in Morocco. Largely rebuilt in the 16th century, it is a small, domed structure that may have been an ablutions annex to the original Ben Youssef Mosque nearby. Although less than inspiring, perhaps, at first glance, the building is distinguished by its unique, ribbed roof dome, the design becoming the model for the classic shapes and motifs used in future Moroccan design. Inside, can be seen displays of motifs of acanthus leaves, palms and pine cones.
The Koubba was built well below today’s ground level and until an excavation project in the 1950s had been covered over as a result of numerous rebuilding projects. You now have to walk down two flights of stairs to reach the interior where, besides the fascinating dome and ceiling design, you can also see a water cistern set into the floor and remains of the fountains used by the faithful for performing ablutions before prayer. Photographs of the excavation project are on display inside the ticket room.