Souks of Marrakesh

Let’s face it – stories of ‘Lawrence of Arabia’, ‘Gladiator,’ ‘Game of Thrones’ and ‘Our Man in Marrakesh’ all conjure of images of a lost city of intrigue, defiance, great wars, mysticism and romance. All of these films and a myriad of others where filmed in Morocco as the land is so diverse that it lends itself to some of the most magnificent film sets.

Morocco has several ancient walled cities or ‘medinas,’ all with their own unique blend of offerings. For me the two most fascinating are those of Fez and Marrakesh, so divergently different with Fez having intricate covered mazes of narrow sloping streets and Marrakesh a livelier contemporary feel.

In the 11th century, an imperial Berber dynasty called the Almoravids took hold of Marrakesh as the imperial city of the region.  Enclosing it in massive high red walls it developed the nick-name “Red City.” Although a lot has changed since those early days, the red walls still remain and the famous Koutoubia Mosque still stands as a beacon and iconic landmark, especially when you find yourself lost.

Early morning in Marrakesh and the ‘Salat Ul Fajr’ resounds through the streets and narrow alleys, resonating up high walled Riads to the skies above. This is the first call to prayer just before sunrise. The famous Jemma-al-Fnaa square is quiet, save for a few sleeping dogs and the odd cat scurrying about looking for early morning titbits. As the sun gradually rises shop doors creak open, broom bristles bounce on cobbled walkways, clacking wheels of fruit carts clatter across the stone and the early chatter of locals competes with aromas of caramel and roasted nuts as coffee stands percolate their morning brew.

As the sun rises higher, life drawns into the square.

The main attraction of the Marrakesh medina is the myriad of souks that branch off from the main square like a maze of spaghetti. Now for those of you not familiar with the terms, a quick catch up. A Medina is a city and a Souk is a bazaar or market place. While there are many attractions in the Medina the most fun can be had in the Souks. Imagine narrow cobbled alleys with a sensory overload of colour to your left, right and above your head. Add to that the sound of people calling; the chatter of a thousand lips moving in endless conversations and local songs being played on small radios.

The most popular is Souk Semmarine located next to Jemma-al-Fnaa square. This crazy souk has a 100 year old trading history and is the largest market in the whole of Morocco. From colourful shoes and bags, spices and lamps, there is very little that can’t be found here. What is good to remember though, is that the small streets that duck off on the left and right are souks on their own and there are a total of 18 that make up the market.  Each Souk has a name, Semmarine meaning ‘Gate of the Farriers’ as in the early days the souks closest to the streets were the ones occupied by the Farriers. There are three entrances to the souk of Semmarine so we will go from the central one.

Traditionally, souks were laid out according to the different trades with each souk being named after its trade. The most valuable commodities such as gold, where generally found at the centre with the least valuable commodities at the other entrances.

As you enter the souk you will come across many pottery stalls, selling the famous tagines, followed by a mix of different stalls. Do yourself a favour and don’t buy the first things you like as what many people done realize is that the further into the souk, the lower the cost, probably as many tourists dare not venture too far for fear of getting lost. Explore first, shop later.

There are two forks of Semmarine, the right one to Souk Ableuh and the left one to el Attarine.

If you love your Harrisa and olives, then Ableugh is a true olive heaven.

Souk el Attarine, is the market for perfumes, essential oils, and spices piled high in large vats of exotic aromas. Be sure to come home with the most important spice mix of all, Ras el Hanout – literally meaning, ‘top shelf’ or ‘best of all.’ You will also find lamps, copper and brass lanterns candlesticks, silver teapots and all types of vases. Lamps are an art form in Morocco, handed down from one generation to the next, displaying a mix of the straight lines of the early Berber culture with the rounded designs of Islamic and Ottomon influences that truly come alive when the light radiates from within.

Souk ek Kebir is an extension of Semmarine and is filled with hand-crafted leather products, bags, belts, or poufs, made from goat or calf, as well as a myriad of wooden goods.

Just next to ek Kebhir are the Kissorias, a series of covered markets selling sumptuous silk and gorgeous fabrics and clothing designs. On the other side is the Jewelry souk ‘Bijoutiers’ where you can find a range of gold and silver jewelry. Be sure though that is comes with correct certification.

Of course to add to your newly acquired bag or belt, one needs a good pair of comfortable Moroccan slippers and for these, head to the Souk des Babouches, or market of slippers.

The best way to get to the slipper bazaar is to keep walking along Souk el- Attarine heading north for about 140m till you come the market. It is also referred to as the Souk Smata. Here you will find an agora of brightly coloured fairy tale slippers of varying quality of leather, some with stepped heels some flat, some with thicker soles than others.

Another interesting little find is the tiny arch just before you get to the babouches market, which will lead you into the Souk des Teinturiers – the Dyers’ Souk. If you love colour, then the iridescent brightly coloured sheaves of blue and green wool and saffron coloured textiles will become your optical feast. Once active on an industrial scale it is now mainly retained as a tourist site.

Near the end of the main souk of Semmarine, you will find the open air souk of the Berber people selling hand made woolen products, rugs, carpets and kelims. It is known in French as La Criee Berbere and is said to have once been the site for early slave auctions.

Of course part of the fun of the Souks is losing your direction. Fortunately there is a very good land mark if you can eventually emerge to a spot where you can see one, the famous Koutoubia Mosque, which stands as a beacon south west of the entrance to Souk Semmarine from the main square. Failing that, ask, but be prepared to sometimes pay a tip for being shown the way through, or to land up being offered a cup of tea in a local carpet shop.

If you planned your time in the souks correctly, by the time you head back to Jemma el-Frnaa you will be met with a hive of activity. Vendors, fruit sellers, snake charmers and street traders, not to mention the hundreds of food stalls that magically spring up as the sun heads for bed. From a sensory overload of colour, to aromas of tantalizing tagines and sizzling kebabs, the Souks of Marrakesh are a delight for all who enter.

by Debra Bouwer

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