Mystical Marrakesh


"Wait until 5 o'clock," said the guide in Marrakesh. "I have something magnificent to show you."

True to his word, as the sun began to set over the desert around this pink-walled city oasis, we headed to the Djemaa el-Fna, the largest square in Africa.

We were not alone. Reaching the square, often called the raison d'être of Marrakesh, founded in 1062 – we counted tens of tour buses, hundreds of tourists entering what would be a fantastic experience in this land of the Moors.

A century ago, the heads of people executed for conspiracy against the Sultan were publicly exhibited in this square. Djemaa el-Fna means "Square of Execution," but these days, it's a huge stage of performers, outdoor stalls and cafes.

First, you hear the sound of beating drums, and the "oohs and aahs" of crowds gathering around the performers. Snake-charmers with their flutes, Berber dancers, monkey-trainers, drummers, cymbalists and acrobats entertain the tourists.

Marrakesh, obviously on a much grander scale than Djemaa el-Fna, is less than an hour flight south of Casablanca, and has served as one of the greatest trading centers of the Sahara.

Travelers visit the Saadyines Tombs, Dar Si Said Museum, the Menara Pavilion and Agdal Gardens, the Koutoubia and the Ba' hai Palace.

Though Berbers, the original inhabitants of Morocco, can be found in most areas of the country, Marrakesh is their center.

Churchill Slept Here

The historic La Mamounia Hotel has been visited by hundreds of dignitaries, including British Prime Minister Winston S. Churchill, who took President Franklin Delano Roosevelt there after the Casablanca Conference in 1943. Churchill, the consummate artist, stayed at this wonderful hotel, and is reported to have said that the view from the roof was "paintaceous."

The souks (or "markets") in Marrakesh remain picturesque, though not quite as crowded or medieval as Fez. Still, there are bargains galore, and in the souks, one bargains. Indeed, bargaining is the most popular sport in the country.

The rules are simple: Make sure you bargain hard and start low. After the merchant offers an opening price, you come in with one-quarter to one-third less.

Then the true fun begins, the price going back and forth like a yo-yo. You know you have succeeded if merchants call you a "Berber."

Indeed, they are complimenting your acumen – and perhaps even your longevity.

In Morocco, many Berbers live in rural and mountainous areas, and still speak Berber dialects. Historians tells us that Jews once lived among the Berber tribes in the Sahara mountain villages. These nomadic Berber Jews dressed much like the tribesmen, and were conspicuous by their black cloaks, black skullcaps or round black hats, like those worn by the Quakers.

These Atlas Mountains' Jews served as the nucleus of the Marrakesh Jewish community. But during the 16th century, many Marranos (or "secret Jews") emigrated from Spain to this city, which became an important center of "reconversion" to Judaism for New Christians. Until 1920, the mellah (or "Jewish quarter") was the largest in Morocco.

Today, a Jewish community of only 250 persons functions, with just two synagogues. The newer, modern synagogue is located in the "New Town," at Boulevard Zerektouni, and is often visited by Jewish tourists during weekend services. Men and women sit separately in this Orthodox synagogue, which has about 200 seats.

Another synagogue is situated in the medina, the old Arab quarter, at Laanach. The shamas (or "caretaker"), who is blind, blesses all visitors.

This community is a far cry from its heyday, when more than 300,000 Moroccan Jews made the country a very important center of Jewish life.

Yet coming into the country are many Israeli and American tour groups made up of Moroccan Jews visiting their former homes, also joined by American Jews traveling through the land of a once-great Jewish community.

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Ben G. Frank is the author of A Travel Guide to Jewish Europe, 3rd edition; A Travel Guide to Jewish Russia and Ukraine; and A Travel Guide to the Jewish Caribbean and South America.



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