My Travel Map

My Travel Map

29 January 2013

Marrakech, Morocco - Part II

Many of the pictures I took in Morocco were of art and architecture.  Moroccans have definitely taken an incredible amount of time designing, constructing, and decorating their buildings.  They are intricately and beautifully detailed.  The art is quite amazing and unique as well, thanks to some of the artistic taboos in Islamic culture.  I've tried to capture the results here... Morocco leaves one spellbound and in awe of the details that surround you, even more so when you consider that everything was designed and put together by other people.

So, this post will focus more on some of the museums, art, and architecture of Marrakech.  I love art and architecture... they are two wide open windows to a culture and its particular point in history, a peaceful way in which people from a particular society and point in time can showcase their feelings, ideas, and ideals to the world.  If I haven't conveyed it clearly enough in the last message, Marrakech oozes character.. like this assortment of signs on a corner.

First stop, the Marrakech Museum...

Housed in a 19th century palace, the museum showcases traditional and contemporary Moroccan art, but the palace itself is arguably the star showpiece.

I loved these paintings.  The artist skirted the Islamic taboo of painting people's images by using this hazy, dream-like style, which blurs the features and most importantly the faces.  The colors in the painting above just drew me in... the Tuareg blues with the golden sands and brown skins.  The Tuareg are a Berber people that live in the desert regions of northwest Africa.  They are a very interesting, traditionally nomadic people, and I'll discuss them in more detail in the desert posts.  

Another painting by the same artist depicted a cavalry charge in which the riders fired their rifles into the air.  This is focussed in on one of the riders and his horse... it's amazing how blurred the picture really is, but when you step back, the subject and content are very clear. 

The inner courtyard.  The lighting in here is very yellow because of the sunlight coming through the canvas that covers this once open-air area.  The brass lamp hanging above the central fountain is enormous.  Like more standard Moroccan homes, palaces are not very ornate on the outside, but instead focus on beauty on the inside, particularly centered around the central courtyard.  This is very much reflective of the culture itself and has much to do with privacy for women.  Facades might seem dull or rough, but inside things are beautiful, inviting, and bright.

This was where I first started to realize just how incredibly intricate Moroccan architectural decoration is.  Everything is seemingly very finely detailed... the closer you look, the more intricate it gets.  It's beautiful, especially for someone with an appreciation for mathematics... very fractal-like.

Even this old wooden door was immaculately decorated.  The designers were masters of geometry... filling essentially every bit of available space with detail, but making it all fit together so well, like a very intricate puzzle.  Carved cedar wood is a common feature of Moroccan motifs.

This post won't have too many written details...I'll save that for the photos.  The basis for Moroccan architecture comes from the Arabs and the Middle East.  Over centuries though, Moroccans have added their own twist to things, most of which comes out in the decorative forms.

Beautifully painted wooden ceilings are another typical motif.  I was held nearly hypnotized by this one, which was in an otherwise empty room (aside from a hanging lamp) off of the central courtyard.

The museum also showcased some of the traditional textile art from around the country.  As with everything else, these rugs and blankets were beautifully and colorfully decorated and must have taken a very, very long time to produce.

Arches and archways are also very popular in Morocco... the rounded horseshoe and more traditional Middle Eastern pointed arch being the most common, both of which can be seen here.

Just around the corner from the Marrakech Museum is the Ben Youssef Medersa (madrasa), which is open to tourists.  Medersas are religious schools, where students come to learn about Islam.  Ben Youssef is possibly the most beautifully decorated place I saw in Morocco as well.

Carved stucco and zellij tile-work.  Zellij mosaics are often based on star patterns in the center, with other features emanating radially outward, as you'll come to see again and again in this and later posts.  The stucco at Ben Youssef was just overwhelmingly complex too.  With all of these pictures, just consider the symmetry... the spaces are filled nearly perfectly by the designs, which is not an easy task.

Anyone familiar with Arabic will recognize the writing that is worked into the designs.  This is a common feature of Islamic buildings.

I became obsessed with the details... hypnotized by the intricacy of it all.  The attention to detail and display of patience and devotion and commitment makes it that much more spectacular and beautiful.

The scale of the detail is just overwhelming at times.  Looking out into the courtyard like this, particularly when you are standing there and have full knowledge of just how big the whole thing is, really fills one with a sense of awe.  I was very much impressed and humbled by the medersa.  I can see how it would be a very inspirational place to work and learn.  The building alone seems too complex for any human to conceptualize on their own, provoking thoughts of the divine.  It is also a wonderful thing that, unlike mosques, medersas are open to non-Muslims.  I genuinely appreciated being able to experience this, though I was also haunted by the fact that many medersas around the world function as hives of hatred and ignorance.  Often funded by wealthy Arab states or individuals, medersas have been established in many, many poor communities throughout Africa and Asia (e.g., Afghanistan), offering the seemingly too-good-to-be-true opportunity of a free education for impoverished children.  In many cases, this is a good thing, and children really do receive a decent education in the schools (albeit with a heavy religious influence/skew).  In some cases however, the medersa can be administered by extremists, who only poison the minds of the students, breeding more extremism.  In my personal opinion, education should be as open minded as possible... with teachers providing students with viewpoints from all sides of any issue or history, providing them with the tools to draw their own conclusions in their own time.  

OK... back to the architecture... this keyhole arched doorway was wonderfully unique. 

A calm pool in the central courtyard.  The central courtyards often focus around a source of clean, fresh water, like a fountain or pool.  Some in wealthier homes (see below for example) even housed gardens with various fruit trees and herbs and vegetables.

Looking across the courtyard from the second floor.  The second floor was very interesting; unlike the large, open rooms of the ground floor, the second floor was compartmentalized into a hive of small, dark living spaces.  Supposedly, even the smallest alcoves were occupied by students or teachers.  Many were very dark, and the devoted academics would spend their spare hours in prayer, meditation, or reading the Koran by candlelight.  At its height, 800 students were supposedly housed here, which is almost unbelievable despite the significant size of the complex.

In the central courtyard of the Bahia Palace.  Technically, this is a riad, an enclosed garden, though most now think of riads as former mansions or palaces that have been converted to hotels for wealthy tourists.  On the southern end of the medina (city center), on the other side of the Djemaa from the Marrakech Museum and Ben Youssef Medersa, lies the Royal Palace complex.  Like any other place where a wealthy, powerful ruler lived, the aristocracy that formed the royal court had places of their own nearby.  The Bahia Palace is one such "home" of a 19th century family that was very influential in the lives of the ruling sultanate.  

I'd suggest a visit to the Bahia Palace.  When I was there, there were only a few other tourists, many of whom were Moroccan.  The atmosphere was cool, calm, and peaceful... allowing me to really take in and appreciate a lot of the details.  

The palace offers all of the now familiar motifs of Moroccan architecture.  It feels somewhat dead though, as did the rest of the historic buildings like this I visited in Morocco, due mostly to the lack of any furniture or decorations (beside from that of the motif).  The modern riad hotels however offer a lot of this plus that genuine, lived-in feeling.

I really appreciated the decorated undersides of the pedestals at the tops of door-frames (as seen here in the upper right corner).

I reflected a lot on how this complex was really the home of a very, very wealthy and powerful family. It made me wonder at the similarities to wealthy families today.  I'm always disturbed at the incredible difference between those with very little and those with very much, and Morocco was no different than pretty much anywhere else in the world, whether it be 200 years ago or today.

The Bahia Palace was expanded upon over several generations in the family.  It is a massive complex, which is nearly impossible to discern from the street.  From outside, it seems tucked away behind drab, high walls.  This hides the true interior... probably originally for safety reasons.

Storks on the Royal Palace walls... there are nests of the large birds all along the top of the walls of the enormous Royal Palace complex.  In the apparent style of things there, the Palace itself is not visible from the outside...only these incredibly (seriously like around 8 meters or so) high mud walls. 

Ruins of the El Badi Palace.  The only part of the Royal Palace complex that is open to tourists (or even visible) is the old El Badi Palace... which is a ruin.  The modern Royal Palace is supposedly privately owned by a wealthy French businessman.  These ruins of El Badi hail from the 16th century, and other than the size of the complex, they aren't terribly impressive.  I'm sure in its prime, though, it would have been incredible.  The sunken gardens and central pools are pretty neat features, and the place really is huge.  The views over the city are definitely worth the price of admission too.

Apparently the Palace is being restored, at least partially.  It will be neat to see how it looks after it's done.

Nearby the palaces is the Kasbah Mosque.  This includes darj w ktaf decoration (the fleurs de lys pattern on the facade), which is another popular motif in Moroccan architecture.

And adjacent to the Kasbah Mosque are the Saadian Tombs, which are most definitely worth a visit.  Along with the El Badi Palace and Ben Youssef Medersa, these tombs hail from the 16th century, with the oldest dating to 1557.  

The mausoleum is just stunning... there is this eerie light and all of those intricate details.  The burial places themselves, marked with those tiered carvings on the floor, stand in stark contrast to all the rest.

The detail is just incredible... it seems almost organic in places.

Most of the classic Moroccan features were also present at the tombs.

There was a line to see the tombs while I was there, but the complex is a little bigger, with a small garden at the back end.  If you're patient, it's not difficult to just wait for the crowd to wane and enjoy a little time to yourself in this incredible setting.

Note how the lines in this zellij are woven together...supposedly it is all just one line...everything is connected.  You see this a lot in the zellij and cedar carvings.  I couldn't find break points (outside of the edges, which are all one white line anyway), so it might be true!  Mention somewhere above that since images are not big in Islamic art/culture, geometry and intricate details are popular.

Here's my door shot... I really do have to get a coffee table book made up with my pictures of doors from around the world.

The simplicity of the tombs just contrasted so well with the complexity of the surrounding architecture.  It is powerfully quiet.

Now, back at the hotel.  This was the courtyard at the quaint little place we stayed at.  Everything was covered in tiles... it was really quite impressive and a little bizarre at times too.  

I thoroughly enjoyed the recycled sections, where they had used old tile fragments to decorate the walls... very cool!

12 January 2013

Marrakech, Morocco - Part I

This is it, a trip to my seventh continent.  The last remaining unexplored continent for me up to this point was Africa.  When I heard that two of my dearest friends had joined the US Peace Corps and were assigned to Morocco, I decided that it was too great of an opportunity to let pass by.  I promised them that I would get out to see them at some point during their deployment.  Arguably, Africa is really two continents, since it is so entirely different in nearly all aspects between Saharan and sub-Saharan.  So I still feel like I need to get back to sub-Saharan Africa before I really can say that I've been there.  That argument can be further refined, however, since Africa is an absolutely massive continent with quite literally the world's oldest cultures, which are extremely varied, complex, and diverse.  Morocco is no exception to this cultural richness and diversity, and technically, a trip to Morocco lands you on the African landmass, so it does indeed count as a trip to my seventh continent.

I arrived at the hearth of the country, in the old city of Marrakech.  The picture above is a street scape leading up to the Moroccan style minaret of the Koutoubia Mosque. This is a classic example of the 5:1 (height to width) ratio used in Moroccan mosque architecture for their single, square-footprinted minarets.  Minarets are a prominent feature of Mosques and vary in style from region to region throughout the Muslim world; they are used for the call to prayer.  The Koutoubia's minaret is one of the prominent symbols of Marrakech... like Westminster's Elizabeth Tower (i.e., the tower formerly known as Clock Tower) is to London and the Eiffel Tower is to Paris.

At the heart of Marrakech is the Djemaa el Fna, the main central square.  Lined by market stalls, restaurants, hotels and riads, the Djemaa also fills with food and juice stands, a farmers market, and street performers.  It is undoubtedly the highlight of the city for anyone interested in people and their culture and normally a bustling hive of activity.  However, I was visiting Morocco midway through the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, when all Muslims must fast, allowing nothing (food, drink, or smoke) to pass their lips during the day-lit hours of each day.  This made for a particularly remarkable experience during my trip, as you'll find through my posts on Morocco.  I loved wandering in and around the Djemaa... it is an invigorating experience, and one that truly ties in all of the great and overwhelming feelings of travel.  The minaret of the Koutoubia is seen again here on the left, with another minaret tower on the right along the horizon.

Down at street level in the Djemaa during a day in Ramadan.  It was August when I was there, so the days were longer (though not bad since Morocco isn't at high latitudes... unfortunate Muslims closer to the poles suffer much during summer Ramadan... we heard of one family in Norway that was going 17 hours each day without food or drink!).  This also meant the days were hotter, and the combined effect of the heat and exhaustion and fatigue of not eating or drinking meant the days were pretty low on the activity scales, as you can see from the essentially empty Djemaa.  As I found more and more throughout the trip too, the fatigue of fasting every day for a month really got to people.  The difference in their mood between night and day was remarkable.  During the day, people were sleepy, mopey, cranky, and sometimes outright rude (Moroccans tend to smoke a lot of tobacco... imagine the responses of nicotine addicts going without smoking each day and then combine that with the mood swings that come with hunger and thirst!), but that all changed come sunset and that pure pleasure of breaking the fast, which I'll come to soon.

I added this picture, another taken from the Djemaa, as a reminder of the times we live in.  Morocco is a Muslim country, and the majority of Muslims are incredibly kind and peaceful people, with Moroccans being particularly warm, open minded, and friendly to outsiders.  However, the small percentage of Muslims who have embraced extremism and are engaged in open acts of terrorism have had a devastating impact on our modern world, as we are all aware.  The building under construction beside the mosque in the background here was originally the Argana Cafe, which was destroyed by a terrorist bomb in April 2011.  17 people died in this cowardly attack (the explosive device was left in a bag dropped in the cafe), and 20 more were injured.  The attack was blamed on al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, though the organization denied responsibility, and there are others who believe there may have been government involvement (for details see: the Wikipedia article and references).  Regardless of who was ultimately responsible, this construction site - visible from all around the square - was a terrible reminder of the random acts of senseless violence in the world, but its rebuilding was also a sign of the resilience of the people of Marrakech.

North of the Djemaa lies Marrakech's enormous labyrinth of souks (the Arabic word for market).  Marrakesh is definitely a market town.   Adventurous travelers that are familiar with bargaining tactics and aggressive vendors should definitely spend some time getting lost in the maze of Marrakech's souks.  It is and incredible experience wandering around, and there are many, many sights, smells, and tastes to take in.  Marrakech has this incredible "ancient" quality about it.  You feel at many times as if you are wandering around a medieval city, and the markets exemplify that quality.

Being a Mediterranean nation, Moroccan cuisine includes plenty of Mediterranean influences and flavors.  This stand showcases olives and pickled vegetables, which are ubiquitous in markets around the country.  I gorged myself on olives in Morocco.  The vendors offer an incredible variety of the small, plentiful fruit of the olive tree, most of which are mixed with various oils, vinegars, and/or spice mixes.

Popular souvenirs for tourists are elaborately and colorfully decorated earthenware, and in particular tajines.  The tajine (seen here in the lower left of the picture), is a Moroccan culinary tool, used for making a flavor-infused stew/roast hybrid.  A piece of meat is placed on a bed of rice or cous-cous and surrounded by vegetables, fruit (like olives or dates), and spices in the bottom plate of the tajine.  The conical lid is placed over the dish and the tajine is put in a hot oven to cook over several hours.  The steam and juices from the cooking rise up and condense on the lid, then flow back down the sides and infuse into the various ingredients.  I knew I liked Moroccan cuisine before my visit, but the many meals I had in country really developed my appreciation for the combination of flavors, ingredients, and styles of cooking.  Some of my favorite tajine meals included chicken with rice lemon and olives and lamb with dates and onions.

Spices... the all important ingredients that have driven trade throughout the world for all of human history.  I mean, people love to eat... a great meal is one of the simplest, most basic pleasures we can experience in this life, and the right combination of herbs and spices are key to making a good meal great.  Being major cross-roads of old world trade, the Middle East and North Africa are right alongside the massive markets of India and China for having some of the richest spice markets.  Like markets I've seen in those places, Moroccan vendors also put a great amount of time into properly showcasing their goods (as seen above with those seemingly physics-defying cones of spice).  The picture below is incredibly reminiscent of those I've taken in India and Turkey too.

Marrakech's souks offer shoppers all kinds of consumer goods... and the great thing is, they aren't entirely dominated by souvenir stands selling all of the same thing.  The tourist market mixes in seamlessly with the local markets... really its just all blended together naturally in the epic labyrinth I suppose.

Moroccan markets also offer up an amazing array of carpets, rugs, and blankets.  Be careful though, the vendors are very, very effective hagglers... so be sure to never agree to anything more than you were originally willing to pay.

Most of the souk streets are covered... which is obviously to protect from the sun, not rain.  It adds a very closed-in almost claustrophobic quality to the markets... you feel very close to the goods and those around you.  This is an exciting feeling for me, one that I seek out often while traveling, but I quite understand how it can overwhelm, frustrate, and even scare others.

Fresh fruits and vegetables.  Morocco is a geographically wealthy country, particularly for North Africa.  With a variety of landscapes and micro-climates available thanks to its coast, deserts, and mountains, they are able to grow a wide variety of foods.

Having been to Budapest and Istanbul, I knew right away what these domed structures with the small inlaid glass rounds were.  Hammams, bathhouses, are popular in Morocco, and offer a great experience for visitors.  Just be sure to look up the local customs and etiquette before jumping into one.  Also, there are several that cater more to tourists as well... making for a much more comfortable experience for everyone involved (tourists, staff, and local customers).

As mentioned above, the streets were relatively quiet during the day... there were some people about there business, but very clearly not the normal hustle and bustle of a big city during the day.  It allowed me to really get some great shots though and reflect a lot on where I was and what I was doing, which was much appreciated.  The ability to just relax and reflect often escapes or evades me when I'm wrapped up in the go-go-go environment of big cities

Morocco offers these deliciously colorful cityscapes.  In Marrakech, warm, earthy colors were very popular, but other places used lots of blues and cooler tones.  It is a visibly stunning and pleasurable country, both naturally and anthropogenically.

This is just a teaser for the second part of my Marrakech blog.  Islamic art and architecture often incorporates incredibly detailed and complex geometric design, and Moroccan architecture has embraced that train to its fullest potential.  This was just a random facade I passed in the souk.

Sunset approaching... with the darkening sky, more and more people started wandering the streets...


Anticipating sunset and the end of their daily trial, throngs of people gathered in the Djemaa in preparation for breaking fast.  The tradition for breaking fast during Ramadan is to eat a small snack (often including dates, which is how Mohammed broke his fast as told in the Koran) and then head to the mosque for prayers before going home to enjoy a proper dinner with the family.  Some other things I saw a lot of people breaking fast with fresh fruit, like figs, juice (orange or grapefruit), and the very sweet shebekia, a honey covered sugary pastry.

Just before sunset, food stalls filled out the previously empty square.  When the call to prayer at sunset went out, the tension was immediately relieved as people dug into their snacks and broke their fast.  Immediately the change in mood was felt as people started laughing and discussing loudly.  The pleasure they felt at satisfying their hunger and thirst was very clear...

Everything became so lively after sunset!  Just compare this scene to the one of the same area earlier (note the minaret and construction site dominating the horizon as points of reference).  It was quite literally night and day between the level of activity and excitement and peoples' attitudes and demeanors.  Nighttime in Marrakech during Ramadan was quite simply intoxicating.

The ancient quality and exotic characteristics of the city and especially the back streets and passages were amplified by night.

After the services were completed at the mosques, the main square took on a festival-like atmosphere... the bustling Djemaa was full of excited people and imbued with the sound of snake charmers' flutes and cooking stalls and people selling their wares.

Snake charmers.  There were several groups of these men on the square, seemingly tempting their fate by romancing deadly cobras.  However, it is supposedly all a sick and twisted show; I was told that they sew the snakes mouths shut!  I was recommended, and will pass the recommendation on, that one should not support these men.  If nothing else, they are overly aggressive in their demands for monetary compensation.  If I wasn't able to take this photo from afar, and they had seen me taking it, then they would have demanded that I pay them handsomely for it.  Also, beware of the guys walking around with monkeys on leashes... as with the snake charmers you should just outright IGNORE THEM... don't make eye contact and don't pay any attention to them or their animals!  The monkey handlers are also overly aggressive, even allowing their monkeys to jump on tourists without any permission.  Fortunately, this didn't happen to me, but I saw many fall victim to such tactics.  Beware.

Not all the locals in the Djemma are bad and trying to cheat you out of your money... the food stalls were awesome and the people working and eating there were very nice, and most importantly, the food is good!  I love street food, and this was just an epic venue for enjoying some quality Moroccan versions of it.  They charge you for everything you eat, including the dipping sauces, bread, and olives, which are offered up regardless of whether you ask or not.  If you don't want any, then just don't touch them and they wont charge you... however, alongside the main dishes, they are delicious and the prices are quite reasonable, as any good street food should be.

Food stalls are all licensed and numbered... supposedly to ensure quality.  It is pretty easy though to pinpoint which are most popular with locals and which most people are avoiding.  We ate at this one, no. 31, a couple times, and it did not let us down.

Many more vendors show up after dark on the Djemma too, like the lamp merchant seen here.

The markets go on at night, and during Ramadan, it probably thrives at night.

One of the groups of stalls that was open all day and evenings on the Djemma were the orange and grapefruit juice stands.  At these, they would press fresh oranges and grapefruits to extract the juice right in front of you.... delicious.  Come nightfall, there were also plenty of stands selling dried fruit too.

Most of Marrakech's budget hotels are within a short walk from the Djemma.  There are also several of the luxury riads around that area... riads are old mansions, often with a central courtyard, that have been converted into luxury guesthouses for wealthy visitors.  There are plenty of hotels to choose from though.  I got my own room for only $20 per night, and it was quite comfortable.

Overall, Marrakech was an enticing introduction to that excited me and left me anxious to explore more of the country.