Marrakesh’s Mellah: home to Bahia Palace

Due to the recent freak severe hurricanes which lay savage to the West Indies, our original cruise plans were promptly postponed. So with the best part of three weeks booked off and now free, the world was our oyster.

We touched down in Marrakesh, Morroco just after 9pm – for once not too confused about what time zone we’d landed in as the country shares the same zone as the UK. Our airport pick-up dropped us off at the Savoy Le Grand – our home for the next six nights. True to its name, a grand hotel with a cosmopolitan bustle and a distinctly arabesque aesthetic. The absolute giant pool was essential for acquiring an important sunkissed glow before W-day.

The following morning, we decided to take a taxi into the city’s Medina. Marrakesh is loosely divided in two – the Medina, which can trace its roots back to the original settlement of the Berber Sanhaja tribe and its Almoravid Berber leader, Youssef ben Tachfine. And the Ville Nouvelle, the city’s growing new town.

When the Berber leader and his savvy wife, Zainab, stopped off after a successful campaign wiping out their opponent tribes in the 11th century, they pitched their campsite in a spot that had good strategic benefits in a swath of desert. They built ramparts in 1062 AD and the following dynasty established the city’s underground irrigation canals, khettara, and the signature pink mudbrick architecture – giving Marrakech its ‘red city’ title.

No ordinary taxi ride

I’d read the ‘taking a taxi tips’ in my Lonely Planet and new that as a party of five, we’d need to take a ‘grand taxi’ rather than a more common beige ‘petit taxi’ which only seats three.

I also knew that we should hail one from the road rather than head to a rank or pick one that sits outside the tourist hotspots – like the Savoy, if we were to get a reasonable price.

And I’d accepted that it was unlikely we’d get a metered taxi.

Yeah – we still fell for the bunkum some cab driver told us about our destination choice being shut at the weekend and an alternative market for exploring.  We ended up having an extended tour around the city’s perimeter, with an unscheduled stop at his friend’s shop.

Eventually, we negotiated our way to the city’s Jewish quarter in the old city. Lesson learned. To be fair it still cost us less than eight quid (which would only get us halfway to Banbury back home.)

The Bahia Palace

Lonely Planet sums up the Mellah, or Jewish Quarter, like so:  

‘With palaces (and a mausoleum) belonging to by-gone pashas and sultans, this area puts the bling in the medina. When your neck aches from all the ceiling gazing, seek out the alleys of the Mellah – the Jewish quarter, a contemplative contrast to the razzle dazzle.’

These alleys and streets, or derbs, simply groan under the weight of shop sellers, donkey carts, scooters and street hawkers overlooked by the area’s mudbrick houses – the tallest in the city. Many of the Jewish families moved from the area in 1960s, but this quarter is still home to the Bahia Palace. An unobtrusive sign and the few tourists queuing to pay their entrance fare – 10 dirhams, about 80p – just gives its location away.

This is a floor-to-ceiling masterpiece created by artisans using intricate marquetry and zouak, painted wood ceilings. The palace was originally commissioned by Si Moussa, a slave who had risen to become the Sultan Moulay Hassan’s chamberlain and grand vizier. The palace was then occupied and extended by his son, Bou Ahmed, who also held the title of chamberlain.    

We wandered around a series of interconnecting courtyards, each more brilliantly decorated than the last and boasting lush green foliage with elaborate central fountains. The ‘Le Petit Riad’ is the first enclosed garden visitors reach and part of Bou Ahmed’s extension, leading through to the Grand Riad, part of the original Si Moussa Palace.  

In 1894 Bou Ahmed managed to stage a coup after he concealed news of the Sultan’s death until he could declare the Sultan’s 14 year old son heir, with Bou Ahmed as regent, effectively gaining complete control of the state. It was in the Bahia’s ‘Le Grande Cour’, a huge expanse of Italian Carrara marble, that poor subjects would wait in the baking sun to plead for the regent’s favour, mercy or whim.

From the Grand Riad, also lies the harem – home to Bou Ahmed’s four wives and 24 concubines, and the rooms of the regent’s favourite wife, Lalla  Zineb, denoted by its awe-inspiring ceilings.

Saadian Tombs

We refuelled in one of the many tourist and local-frequented cafes dotted around the Place de Ferblantiers, tucking into a plate of vegetable couscous; we then ambled round to the Saadian Tombs.

This is a mausoleum is like no other, and was built to honour the splendour of Sultan al-Mansour after his death in 1603. Al-Mansour wasn’t expecting his legend to be cut short when one of his predecessors, Sultan Moulay Ismail, walled up the tombs some decades later, only for it to be rediscovered in 1917. A mere pound will gain you entry.

The Chamber of the Twelve Pillars is the resting place of several royal princes and the Sultan’s most trusted Jewish advisors. Whilst his wives were relegated to garden plots outside. Says a lot I think… 

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