History of Marrakesh
If Dr Who were to muck about with local timelines, there would be a gaping hole in our time-space continuum. On a map Central Morocco appears isolated by mountains and desert on three sides, but it has made African, Arab and European history as the final leg of legendary trans-Saharan trade routes. Trading contacts with southern Morocco may have helped inspire Portugal’s naval exploration of Africa’s riches – voyages that kick started the age of exploration and later European colonialism. Without the Almoravids’ power base here to expand their empire into Europe, there may never have been Muslims in Spain, let alone Moorish architecture. Without the sensational Saadian sugar-dealers and Jewish salt-traders here, European meals might have remained medievally bland, and world history would certainly be a lot less spicy.
Marrakesh is often at the centre of this historical action, having served as the capital to three separate dynasties – more than the imperial cities of Fez and Meknès. But other regional players have had historical importance far out of proportion to their size or location. In the snowy High Atlas,climbers may stub their toes on petro glyphs showing signs of human civilization from 1500 years ago. Songs and stories repeated in Berber village moussems (festivals) and the Unesco-recognised Djemaa el-Fna embellish histories of triumphant local heroes and tragic love affairs. In their day, mudbrick ksour (castles) and watchtowers along the Drâa Valley were more reliable than
tracking numbers to make sure precious caravan cargo reached its destination. Tiny Glaoui mountain strongholds played huge roles in the history of French colonialism in Africa, and also in agitating for independence. Today the area is the centre of attention as Morocco’s big draw for visitors and amulticultural Mid-Eastern milieu that’s true to its history and promising for its future.
With geography ranging from desert dunes and rocky plains to mountains rising more than 4000m above sea level, the climate of Central Morocco is one of extremes. Bitterly cold High Atlas winters start in September and last into June, and sweltering deserts will leave you panting for water by May.
Spring and autumn are the best times to explore, with temperatures averaging 20°C to 25°C. April is traditionally sandstorm season in the desert, when wind speeds of only 10km/h pick up the fine sand and dust, and whisk it across the plains. Storms often last three to four days, during which desert travel is inadvisable. If travelling in the desert in sandstorm season, allow a few extra days to ensure you get to see the dunes rather than just gritty brown haze.
In the High Atlas the main language is the Berber dialect of Tashelhit (with some pockets of Tamazight). Elsewhere Darija (Moroccan Arabic) and French are universally spoken.
Marrakech – GETING THERE & AWAY
Marrakesh is the transport hub of the region, well supplied by train, bus and air links. Direct flights from London to Marrakesh’s Menara airport are now offered by low-cost airlines such as Easyjet, RyanAir and AtlasBlue, and frequent flight and train services from Casablanca further expands travel options. Royal Air Maroc (RAM) also runs daily flights to Ouarzazate (via Casablanca) as well as Marrakesh. However, you could consider flying Paris–Ouarzazate directly on one of several flights weekly. Marrakesh–Ouarzazate flights go rather nonsensically via Casablanca – it’s faster to drive.
A direct three-hour rail service to/from Casablanca links Marrakesh to the major cities in the north. Supratours bus services continue on to Essaouira, Agadir and right down south to Laâyoune and Dakhla. Similar services are offered by CTM and other local bus companies, although these tend to be more crowded and less comfortable.