Lost in the Marrakesh Maze

Lost in the maze of old Marrakesh

The souk was an overpowering lungful of two-stroke motorcycle exhaust, human sweat, sizzling food, and the pungency of a tannery that seemed to soak into my clothes and permeate my skin as I navigated passageways clogged with bicycles, donkey carts and tightly-wrapped humans who strode with determination rather than shuffled along.

For the newly initiated wanderer, it is huge, confused, inextricable, and enclosed. 

Metal workers tapped with tiny hammers…

Neither automobiles nor wagons can enter this maze, where each trade has its own alley: one for colourful slippers, one for shining brass pots, and yet another bursting with stuffed leather cushions next to an Ali Baba of carpets. 

A leatherwork stall in the souk…

Basket vendors wove dried grass, metal workers tapped with tiny hammers, and not far away, a butcher sliced hunks of meat, besieged by a coven of cats.

The stalls all sold the same things, and the price was never marked. It all depended on how much the customer was willing to pay, and how little he could get away with. To bargain was almost an end in itself.

These goods were displayed in arms-length-wide stalls crammed from rug to rafters with so many items that I found it impossible to chose anything at all. 

Wandering the Marrakesh souk

Utterly unable to decide on a purchase, we cut short our shopping and went people watching instead. In Marrakesh, there’s no better place to observe a scene torn from the pages of Scheherazade’s One Thousand and One Nights than the Djemaa el-Fnaa square after dark. 

This vast open space has been the city’s gathering place since at least 1070 AD, and as darkness falls, you could be forgiven for thinking you’d plunged back in time. 

Night market on the Djemaa el-Fnaa

Juice vendors scanned the scene from behind glistening palisades of oranges. Sizzling meat spits smoked the air. A snake charmer warbled his flute at a cobra. And three guys took turns kicking a football at a wall, where plastic bottles had been placed one atop the other to challenge their accuracy.  

A man waddled past in a terrycloth brown burnoose, and from the corner of my eye I could have sworn he was a Jawa, but I was soon distracted by another man with a luxuriant beard, clad in a velvet burnoose of robin’s egg blue.

Around the fringes, sellers of cooked sheep heads and sellers of sweets did a brisk trade, interrupted by costumed water sellers whose main income was charging tourists for photos. 

Casting my gaze over the Djemaa el-Fnaa

Above it all towered the glowing brown minaret of Koutoubia Mosque, at 77 metres (253 feet) the tallest building in Marrakesh. No structure, old or new, is permitted to exceed its height. 

Mosques are ever-present in this city, visually but especially aurally. The call to prayer echoes through the pre-dawn hours from several different directions at once, uncoordinated and out of tune, sending the droning cry of “God is great” reverberating across the town.

We took a mint tea on the terrace of the Cafe de France as the lights came on below us, and we tried to make sense of the patterns of movement, to watch individual scenes play out inside a vast ever-changing tableau. But the square was not the place to enjoy a peaceful meal.

For that, we frequented a no-frills diner called Oscar Progrés, down a side street by the Post du Maroc, where we could dine like sultans for less than ten euros on a plate of spiced olives, harira soup, tomato and onion salad, skewers of grilled lamb, and vegetables on top of couscous so fluffy it had the texture of clouds.

Mint tea and sweets at Patisserie Du Prince

For dessert, gazelle horn pastries and mint tea around the corner at the venerable Patisserie Du Prince, where the bees had besieged the sweet cabinets but the second-floor tables were blessedly bee-free.

Our appetites sated after a long day of wandering, it was time to unravel the mental Ariadne’s thread of turns and landmarks that would lead us back to our rooms on the opposite side of the old town maze.

It was time to unravel the mental maze that led us back to our room

Photos ©Tomoko Goto, 2019

About the author

Ryan Murdock

Author of A Sunny Place for Shady People and Vagabond Dreams: Road Wisdom from Central America. Host of Personal Landscapes podcast. Editor-at-Large (Europe) for Canada's Outpost magazine. Writer at The Shift. Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society.

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