Discovering the ancient city of Marrakesh (Part I) Marrakesh to Ouarzazate by Aaron C. Greenman

“I believe that Marrakech ought to be earned as a destination. The journey is the preparation for the experience. Reaching it too fast derides it, makes it a little less easy to understand.”

— Tahir Shah, In Arabian Nights: A Caravan of Moroccan Dreams

The adhan arrives as expected, near 5am in the morning, followed by the iqama soon thereafter. The muezzin rouses all residents of the medina, not only human, but also the schools of birds who awake in a chirping, swarming vortex of activity.  On rooftops, the increasing bustle of the lanes below is barely audible, as the winter sun announces its presence over the outline of the Atlas and a clear, pale blue sky.  In the medina, life continues as it has for centuries, with fruit, vegetable, meat and fish vendors plying their wares on the streets, men taking their tea at regular intervals, leather hides cleaned, prepared and dyed in the tannery quarter, the bustle of daily activity energizing a city very much alive, honest to itself, and open to the elements, Marrakesh.

Marrakesh is the fourth largest city in Morocco, after Casablanca, Rabat and Fes. While tourism and related development has been encouraged there by Mohammed VI, visual change is most evident in the city’s modern neighborhoods such as Gueliz, where copy cat villas replicate themselves in orderly rows along wide boulevards, and billboards advertise new golf clubs.

Despite such a push, the Marrakesh medina remains one of the great citadels of the Muslim world, with rose-colored ramparts built in the early twelfth century still surrounding the city and drawing a clear demarcation between the traditional and the modern. Between 1912 and 1956, the French protectorate focused on urban planning and infrastructure to bend the society more toward the French model, and remnants of such an influence are everywhere, evident in the French street names, the café culture, the style of the post offices and lycées, and the manhole covers from Pont-à-Mousson.

And in the middle of it all sits the Djemaa el-Fnaa, a public square the antithesis of the stately grandeur of the Grand Place in Brussels or the architectural perfection of the Plaza Mayor in Madrid. Marrakesh’s main square boasts nightly activity like no other in the world, a celebratory interaction of families, romantics, singers, dancers, storytellers, henna painters, snake charmers, boxers, and more juice and restaurant stalls than one can count.

The activity of the square prepares the traveler for what awaits beyond the Atlas to the east and south, red-sanded ancient cities such as Telouet, Ait Ben Haddou and Ouarzazate, oases of humanity and agriculture on the edge of one of earth’s most challenging landscapes, the Sahara.

From Edith Wharton: “To visit Morocco is still like turning the pages of some illuminated Persian manuscript all embroidered with bright shapes and subtle lines.”

– Aaron C. Greenman

Aaron C. Greenman has been a photographer for more than 25 years and has lived and worked on four continents. He has previously been profiled on The Leica Camera Blog for his work in the Far East, the Indian Subcontinent, East Africa, Israel, Turkey, Russia, and Europe. More of his portfolio images can be viewed on his website, and he has several books available for the iPad. Custom prints of his work are available for purchase on request.

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