Departing Jordan, my favorite Nat Geo expert and ultimate old hippie, Jack Daulton, pointed out to us that we would be seeing quite the sights from our plane on our way to Marrakesh, Morocco. First up was seeing the Nile again, with the additional excitement of seeing both the Suez Canal and the Great Pyramids. We also were continuing our journey over the vast Sahara Desert, which I must say looks pretty uninhabitable from 30,000 feet. I have no idea how early nomadic tribes crossed this thing, but we do have a member of the group that keeps asking about alien theories, which does not go over well with the Nat Geo folks.
As we descended over the Atlas Mountains, Marrakesh came into view and all I could think was that we were finally seeing what appeared to be actual ZONING. Which meant that we might have access to current cable sports and news so I could find out what the hell was happening with MLB free agency and Jake Arrieta in particular.
Prior to this trip my only familiarity with this city was the Crosby, Stills and Nash song “Marrakesh Express”, and all I could remember was the chorus. Jack delivered yet another outstanding lecture on the origins and importance of this ancient city on the plane ride over, and gave us some important background:
Marrakesh is a medina (not to be confused with Medinah Country Club) founded in the late 11th century as the capital of a local Berber Muslim dynasty. Medina is an Arabic word meaning “city”, and often is used in Muslim North Africa to refer to the older part of a city as compared to the newer, post-colonial area of the city. This usage of the term developed in the late 19th century when new political, economic and technological advances required changes in wiring and roads that were impossible to do in the existing Muslim city. A new city was then built up next to the medina, where the colonial affairs were administered, and the foreign colonial officers resided. France colonized Morocco, and a French stand alongside Arabic as the primary languages spoken throughout the country.
Marrakesh prospered during its early years due to its location near rich agricultural lands and position on the trade routes. By the 12th and 13th centuries, Marrakesh had become the cultural, intellectual and spiritual center of Morocco. The medina, or old city, still contains many monuments surviving from its past including mosques, schools, palaces and mausoleums. It is said to be one of the most complete or intact medieval cities in the Arab world.
Marrakesh was also quite the destination in the 60’s for those seeking enlightenment, various forms of recreational drugs, and other shall we say lifestyle enhancements. Our hotel, which was fabulous, had doors covered in velvet and weird soft lighting that made my morning make up application grueling. A veritable hippie abode for sure, with a cool, sophisticated vibe.
The objective of our visit was to explore this UNESCO World Heritage Site, learn more about its Muslim culture, and in my case do everything in my power to try and get a decent pedicure and maybe a blow out-a clear sign that I was moving back into first world problem solving mode.
The medina of Marrakesh is surrounded by a continuous 9-mile wall with a number of gates that control access to the area. Central to the city is the Koutoubia Mosque, which is able to accommodate 20,000 worshippers and is one of the largest mosques in all of Africa. Its towering minaret, where the call to prayer is issued forth 5 times a day, has become the symbol of the city…no buildings can be built higher than it. (i.e. ZONING, a concept not seen until this stop on the trip).
Marrakesh is also famous for its souks, which are market areas consisting of roofed streets lined with small shops usually grouped together by specialty. The shops of the souk are not just places where things are sold- but often where they are manufactured by hand.
Traditionally there was an absence of wheeled traffic in the medina, so the roads are more like alleys and cul de sacs. Lots of motorbikes, bikes, donkeys, horses, cats..the usual hot mess road scene that has been a constant on this trip.
After a lovely evening at our happening and hip hotel, we began our touring early. And it was not a problem to wake up as the call to prayer is on time at 5:45 AM and is LOUD and LONG.
Getting right to it, we boarded buses and headed into the heart of the medina to visit the craftsmen area of the souks, the Royal Palace (Morocco is a monarchy) and a newly opened museum.
Our first stroll through the souk was fascinating. The shopkeepers were just getting their stalls organized- they are small but clean establishments that were specific to tea, meats, sweets, spices… the aromas were wonderful. As a Muslim community, we were visiting on the holiest day of the week-Friday-and many were shopping for their traditional Friday feast staples, dressed in Muslim garb and exchanging morning pleasantries. Those without ovens were bringing their bread to be baked by the neighborhood baker- a tradition so valued it is subsidized by the Moroccan government, as are the bath houses, or hammans, that are an important weekly ritual for both men and women.
We exited the souk and entered the public touring area of the Royal Palace, of which a portion is used when the King and his family are in Marrakesh. A word on politics- Morocco was granted independence from France in 1956 and is governed by a monarchy. The current king is younger, progressive and well liked by the people. He is a champion for women’s rights, has made education compulsory, and is doing a great deal to attract foreign investment to the country. I was definitely impressed with how open and diverse the city felt.
Much of the same Islamic architectural aspects of the Taj Mahal were on display at both palaces we visited. The emphasis on symmetry, simple patterns, writing as an art form and complex tile work were present. The difference here was that the buildings had simple exteriors, with an elaborate internal courtyard garden with well appointed rooms that opened up to this central area.
We made our way over to a newly opened museum called the Museum of Confluences. Organized and already exhibited in London and Paris, it is an exhibit devoted to longing out the similarities between Judaism, Islam, and Christianity. It was excellent in explaining the role of Mary (who is mentioned in the Koran 34 times and is deeply respected), Jesus as prophet and savior, as well as the various religious rituals and their uncanny similarities. As an effort to promote understanding and a call to peace, it is highly effective.
Our morning was made complete with a stop at the previously mentioned Koutoubia Mosque, where many were already gathering in anticipation for the call to prayer. This is an imposing structure, built with the same materials utilized throughout the city- all buildings must be the same clay color by law- simple, elegant, and a beacon to all of Muslim faith.
After lunch, we decided to begin our preparations for our return to the States, and to enjoy some down time before a long travel day. Try as I may, (included begging, which if I could have done in French might have worked) was a no go on any maintenance services for your truly. So, we prepped, got a quick work out in, swung my collapsible 7 iron, and got ready for our final night dinner.
This was quite the celebration with belly dancers, Moroccan food, traditional music, and an incredible slide show put together by our Nat Geo photographer, Nevada Wier. It just reinforced what a fantastic expedition this has been for all of us. The staff surprised me with a cake and song, a lovely heartfelt card, and lots of hugs from our new friends.
I write this as we fly back over the Atlantic, home to you, deeply moved by these past three weeks. I plan to take a few days to process-soak it in, reflect, and then compose my final thoughts. I am definitely left with a desire to see more, maybe go back to a few of these special places as I feel we only scratched the surface- there was just so much that your every sense was overwhelmed, almost elevated. It has been a hard feeling to describe, this constant discovering, the thrill of understanding a culture, a concept, an era, and most importantly our common humanity.
Love to you all.