Founded around 1062 by the Almoravids, Marrakech is one of Morocco’s four Imperial Cities, along with Méknes, Fes and Rabat. It would go on to become the capital of the Almohad caliphate in the 12th century, which sprawled through Spain and Africa.
During this period, Marrakech was blessed with its mighty walls built from red sandstone, gleaming mosques like Koutoubia, fine gardens and palaces. The architectural influence of the Almohads was strong and featured carved domes and arches. When blended with influences from the Sahara and West Africa, it created a unique style of architecture in the city.
Marrakech’s rapid growth turned it into a cultural, religious and trading centre and despite a later period of decline, it resurged in the 16th century during the reign of wealthy Saadian sultans, who built magnificent palaces such as El Badi Palace.
Until 1867, Europeans were forbidden from entering the city unless they were granted permission from the sultan. By the early 20th century, when the country was overwhelmed with unrest, the French were able to colonise Morocco. French influence lingers on in the wide boulevards of the new town, Guéliz, and its few remaining art deco villas, most notably landscape painter Jacques Majorelle’s stylish cobalt blue retreat in the Jardin Majorelle. But the most significant legacy of colonial rule is the French language, which is still spoken by all educated Moroccans.
After WWII, a vast array of pleasure-seekers rediscovered Marrakech. Winston Churchill, Yves Saint Laurent and the Rolling Stones rubbed shoulders with American beat writers, hippies and a new breed of curious visitors anxious to see what all the fuss was about. More recently, a tourism drive led by King Mohammed VI has resulted in new luxury hotels, shops and restaurants. A moderate constitutional monarch, he has been responsible for social reforms and gave parliament new powers during the Arab Spring.
Did you know?
• Although Marrakech was founded in the 11th century, Berbers had been living in the region since the Neolithic era.
• The city was popularly known as Marrakush al-Hamra, meaning Marrakech the Red, inspired by the blushing sandstone used for the ancient walls.
• Marrakech still uses an 11th century irrigation system to water the city’s gardens.