Marrakesh is Morocco's most intoxicating city. Ever since Morocco's Jewel of the South became a trading and resting place on the ancient caravan routes from Timbuktu, the city has barely paused for breath.
Ali ben Youssef Medersa
If you want a little breath taken out of you, don't pass up the chance to see this extraordinarily well-preserved 16th-century Koranic school, North Africa's largest such institution. The delicate intricacy of the gibs (stucco plasterwork), carved cedar, and zellij (mosaic) on display in the central courtyard makes the building seem to loom taller than it really does. As many as 900 students from Muslim countries all over the world once studied here, and arranged around the courtyard are their former sleeping quarters—a network of tiny upper-level rooms that resemble monks' cells. The building was erected in the 14th century by the Merenids in a somewhat different style from that of other medersas; later, in the 16th century, Sultan Abdullah el Ghallib rebuilt it almost completely, adding the Andalusian details. The large main courtyard, framed by two columned arcades, opens into a prayer hall elaborately decorated with rare palm motifs as well as the more-customary Islamic calligraphy. The medersa also contains a small mosque.
The vast, labyrinth of narrow streets and derbs at the center of the medina is the souk—Marrakesh's marketplace and a wonder of arts, crafts, and workshops. Every step brings you face-to-face with the colorful handicrafts and bazaars for which Marrakesh is so famous. In the past, every craft had a special zone within the market—a souk within the souk. Today savvy vendors have pushed south to tap trading opportunities as early as possible, and few of the original sections remain. Look for incongruities born of the modern era. Beside handcrafted wooden pots for kohl eye makeup are modern perfume stores; where there is a world of hand-sewn djellabas at one turn, you'll find soccer jerseys after the next; fake Gucci caps sit beside handmade Berber carpets, their age-old tassels fluttering in the breeze.
As you wander through the souk, take note of landmarks so you can return to a particular bazaar without too much trouble. Once the bazaars' shutters are closed, they're often unrecognizable. The farther north you go the more the lanes twist, turn, and entwine. Should you have to retrace your steps, a compass comes in handy, as does a mental count of how many left or right turns you've taken since you left the main drag. But mostly you'll rely on people in the souk to point the way. If you ask a shopkeeper, rather than a loitering local you'll be less likely to be "guided."
This is an oil painting of Marrakesh done by Prime Minister Winston Churchill, which he gave to his friend President Franklin Roosevelt following the 1943 Casablanca Conference. The painting depicts the Tower of Katoubia Mosque in Marrakesh.