Ancient Arabia Meets Modern Splendor in Marrakech

Angela Dansby

In spring 2017, I walked out of an airplane and stared in awe at an uber modern airport lined with gold panels. Cut-out Arabic stars on the panels reflected light like lanterns. No surprise, I had just landed in Marrakech. This architectural masterpiece was a prelude of aesthetic beauty and modern luxury to come.

A man from my riad (Moroccan-style hotel) drove me from the newly renovated airport through the modern “new city” into the “red city” – an UNESCO World Heritage Site known as the medina old quarter – via an Arabic arcade surrounding the Royal Palace of Marrakech. The red city was obvious with many clay buildings. Horse-drawn carts drag-raced with slow-going cars on narrow roads, bins of spices poured onto sidewalks and carpets hung for sale outside shops. It was like driving backwards in time.

The final journey to my riad required walking through a short maze of narrow, winding footpaths. The modest entrance opened into an exquisite courtyard full of natural light. I was greeted with warm Moroccan hospitality and mint tea. Immediately, I was at peace and enchanted. The Arabic greeting “as-salāmu ʿalaykum,” meaning “peace be unto you,” sunk in.

As a former French colony, Marrakech is partly Francophone and Franco-fantastic with its mélange of artistic and cultural artifacts. But it largely remains true to its Arabic roots in language, architecture, art and gastronomy.

Riads are a focal point of Moroccan architecture and culture. They feature a large, open courtyard with three or four stories of rooms encircling it, including a roof deck. They are a visual feast of Arabic aesthetics, often with a French twist. (El Fenn and Tarabel are exquisite examples.)

After settling into my rooftop riad room, I hired a friend of the friendly receptionist, Mo, to show me around as I advanced my own friends, Jennifer and Kelly, by a day. My guide, Marouane, gave me the perfect insider’s tour from noon until 10 pm!

We began at the ornate, El Badi Palace, a fort-like structure with a massive reflecting pool, courtyard and maze-like walkways above and underground. Then we made our way through ancient wonders made of colorful Moroccan tiles, including Dar Si Said Museum; Medersa Ben Youssef, a former Islamic college; and Bahia Palace with intricate domes and archways.

Marouane also navigated foundouks and souks, where artists make and sell, respectively, their hand-crafted works like leather bags and dyed textiles. He negotiated in Arabic my souk purchases, namely a carpet and lantern, as well as taxi fares (which must always be done in advance to avoid getting ripped off).

Negotiating the gold metal lantern hand-carved with Arabic script was a feat unto itself. I did not want to carry it around during our tour so I told the merchant I would return at the close of market to purchase it. But by the time we got back, his shop was closed. Amazingly, my guide tracked down the seller via his network and we negotiated the price in a back alley. A man on a motor scooter fetched the lantern and we closed the deal as if it were illegal.

“Got the lantern?” Marouane asked in Arabic.

“Yes,” said the scooter man. “Got cash?”

They did a quick exchange and the “magic lantern” was mine.

The next day, after my friends arrived, we got an indirect insider’s tour via local residents with whom Jennifer, a photojournalist, connected. They steered us to Popham Design, a factory of custom-designed, handmade tiles founded by an American couple, as well as to Beldi Country Club, where glassware and ceramics are handmade and sold. Sprawling over 15 hectares, Beldi (meaning “authentic” in Arabic) also raises its own chickens and vegetables for its restaurants.

Jennifer led us to the famous La Mamounia hotel for hammam (Moroccan spa) treatments as part of a photojournalism project. This hotel is where celebrities usually stay in Marrakech because it drips with luxury. Its 2,500-foot spa welcomed us with huge Arabic lanterns and crystal stalactites, leading to a massive pool made of Moroccan tiles surrounded by Arabic archways.

That evening, we took in sunset from a rooftop overlooking the bustling Jemâa al-Fna Square, recognized by UNESCO as Intangible Cultural Heritage. The view from above allowed us to take in the action photographically. Smoke swirls from grilling meat in numerous food stands mimicked the dance of charmed snakes. Later we joined the fray on the ground, colliding with street musicians, fortune tellers and vendors of all things Arabic that were delicious and/or illuminated. The massive market was as alive as humanity can be. Case in point …

“Ow!” exclaimed Jennifer. “Someone just grabbed my butt!”

“Me too!” said Kelly. “Move faster! It’s impossible to see who is grabbing who in this crowd.”

Thankfully, I was untouched (I pinched myself this was true) but I was heckled by numerous food vendors. My friends laughed that I was “ungrabbable” and should take up offers for a shish-kabob binge.

Enjoying Moroccan cuisine was easy as it’s loaded with exotic ingredients and spices in all tastes, colors and forms. Take, for example, Tanjia Marrakech with slowly roasted lamb and vegetables in a bulbous clay pot; tajine, a Berber stew cooked with a conical clay cover; and couscous, tiny pearls of semolina served with a protein and vegetables. (Nomad and its sister restaurant El Jardin served up fine examples.) We could not go wrong with common ingredients of dates, saffron, preserved lemons, olives, sesame seeds, almonds, orange flower and rose waters, and argan oil.

We also sipped divine non-alcoholic drinks in the officially dry country, such as fresh-squeezed juices, rosewater infusions and almond milk with dates (hello, Souk Kafé and Café des Épices). However, by 2017, Marrakech had jumped onto the non-Muslim world’s gourmet cocktail bandwagon, appealing to wealthy locals and tourists. (Le Baromètre, denoted on a small street by a big letter “B” in the “new city,” was the hot new cocktail bar that year to which Marouane and Moe took us.) Such western-style nightlife was surprisingly existent in Marrakech, including a string of nightclubs and live music venues.

We also took in the iconic western attraction called Jardin Majorelle, where the late Yves St. Laurent built his vacation home and sprawling tropical garden. Morocco was the French fashion designer’s site of creative inspiration, where he sketched his annual collections. (In fall 2017, an Yves St. Laurent Museum was added to the site, featuring designs and textiles of the late, great designer.)

Similarly, us Americans were culturally inspired in Marrakech. We were charmed like snakes by the red city’s exotic vibe, centuries of splendor and informative residents.

“We have made you nations and tribes so that you might come to know one another,” states the Holy Quran.

Hospitable locals embodied this spirit, never mind a few pinches.

Denmark is about 50 times smaller than Greenland with only 2 percent of its land space (43,000 vs. 2 million km2). However, Greenland has 1 percent of Denmark’s population (58,000 vs. 5.9 million).