Exploring the Extravaganza that Comprises the Marrakech Medina

Very few experiences in life compare with the craziness and spectacle of the medina in Marrakech, Morocco. Between snake charmers mesmerizing cobras to aggressive hawkers trying to perch monkeys on my shoulder, this circus of show certainly captured my attention. No other quarter in any Moroccan city truly offers the same pizzazz as the Marrakech medina.

Exploring the Extravaganza that Comprises the Marrakech Medina

The Marrakech Medina: Wandering minstrels play Moroccan music outside our cafe. A typical andalous orchestra uses rabab (fiddle), oud (lute), kamenjah (violin-style instrument played vertically on the knee), qanun (zither), darbuka (metal or pottery goblet drums) and taarija (tambourine).
The Marrakech Medina: Wandering minstrels play Moroccan music outside our cafe. A typical andalous orchestra uses rabab (fiddle), oud (lute), kamenjah (violin-style instrument played vertically on the knee), qanun (zither), darbuka (metal or pottery goblet drums) and taarija (tambourine).

To Start: What is a Medina?

Essentially in the Arab world a medina serves as the older, historic part of town, typically walled with various narrow, winding streets. Often medinas house the souks, or markets. To obtain the real color and flavor of Morocco, you really want to wander around the old city. In fact, I would suggest staying in a hotel or apartment as close to this as possible. And in Marrakech, the medina fits this description with a few caveats.

The Marrakech Medina: The Koutoubia Mosque reaches 77 meters high (253 feet) and was built in in 1190 AD.
The Marrakech Medina: The Koutoubia Mosque reaches 77 meters high (253 feet) and was built in in 1190 AD.

My Initial Reservations

Admittedly I was quite apprehensive entering the medina in Marrakech at first. Actually I was unnerved just being in Morocco. As a teenager studying in Spain my host family related horror stories to me of people being robbed or kidnapped in Morocco. Then when Allan went twenty years ago his tour guide held him captive, demanding more money. Although he escaped unscathed, these stories irked me.

Now as an adventurous adult, I realize Morocco is safe.  However I recognize the need to retain a keen alertness of my surroundings regardless of location. In other words, I overcame my reservations, despite voices in the back of my head reminding me of the terrible tales told to me.  Nevertheless I remained cautious.

A lamp shop in the Marrakech medina. There are souks for spices, olives, musical instruments, antiques, crafts, wools and silks, and even brass lanterns.
A lamp shop in the Marrakech medina. There are souks for spices, olives, musical instruments, antiques, crafts, wools and silks, and even brass lanterns.

Approaching the Medina

Excitement set in as we approached the large stone wall encompassing the medina. I could see the age of the imposing, red sandstone walls, transporting me back to 1122 AD when they were built by Ali ibn Yusuf. Once inside, lush greenery surrounded us.

Our first stop comprised shooting photos of the exterior to the red, clay colored Koutoubia Mosque with the commensurate and picturesque minaret. The mosque represents in many ways the center of the city and hallmark of a primarily Muslim country.  And since only Muslims are permitted inside, we observed from the sidelines.

Then from there we crossed the street to begin with the onslaught of vendors trying to sell us rides on their horse and carriage. As we walked past, the excitement built as we approached the most thrilling part of the medina: the shops and souks, or markets. Here is where the real fanfare begins.

The Marrakech medina. For the price of a small tip Allan posed with some hawks on his shoulder.
The Marrakech medina. For the price of a small tip Allan posed with some hawks on his shoulder.

Entering the Heart of the Marrakech Medina By Day

Once we passed the horses, the entrance opens up to a large square filled with crowds. Vendors selling brightly-colored fruit and juices offered us a sample of some delicious concoction of juices. It was so good I bought and devoured two. Later I would regret that decision as a sugar induced headache began.

Next the snake charmers set up in the open square, having drawn a circle of spectators to watch their performance. When I began to show interest men holding fistfuls of live snakes tried to put them on me despite my pleas to the contrary, as I backed up quickly. “Don’t worry,” they reiterated like a record as I ran away.

When I freed myself, monkeys with chains were being dragged around by vendors like circus freaks. I kept up my guard as any eye contact meant his handler would swiftly place him on shoulder for a photo. They are here to make money one way or another, consent or not.

The Marrakech medina. These fruit vendors give out free samples of their delicious juice blends. It's some of the best I've ever tasted.
The Marrakech medina. These fruit vendors give out free samples of their delicious juice blends. It’s some of the best I’ve ever tasted.

The souks certainly proved the most entertaining part for me. 

As we entered further in shops selling twinkling lamps caught my attention.  Next door boutiques displayed a colorful selection of men’s and women’s traditional Moroccan dresses.  At each stall vendors yelled at us to come in, each more insistent we “take a look”.

From silver platters, to ceramic dishes and handmade leather shoes in a rainbow of colors, I only wished I had enough room in my suitcase and house for more stuff I don’t need.  And as I passed the spice shops hawking fragrant coriander and turmeric, I envisioned trying to lug those for five weeks across the next five countries.

Next we sat down at a local café to sip some coffee and take in the spectacle. A trio of traveling Moroccans wearing coffee-colored fezes and white cloaks stopped outside to play Arabic music with a tambourine and fiddle. For a few cents we tipped them as thanks for the show.

The Marrakech medina. Men walk around with fistfuls of snakes that look drugged or almost dead, coaxing you to pick them up in return for a few dollars.
The Marrakech medina. Men walk around with fistfuls of snakes that look drugged or almost dead, coaxing you to pick them up in return for a few dollars.

The Marrakech Medina By Night

The medina at night turns into a marvelous and wild event in itself.  I felt like I was high on a legal substance, a mixture of adrenaline and euphoria. Day and night in the medina can’t be any more different.

At night the crowd increases ten fold with large groups surrounding various entertainers doing tricks for tips.  Then many long lines of food carts have been set out as aggressive vendors verbally coax passersby to drop in for a meal, fighting for customers.  And wandering minstrels set up small camps as they play music, hoping for donations.

The Marrakech medina. Allan poses with a Moroccan water man who sells water. In Casablanca one guy squirted me with water.
The Marrakech medina. Allan poses with a Moroccan water man who sells water. In Casablanca one guy squirted me with water.

My Synopsis of the Marrakech Medina

No other market in Morocco compares with the side shows at the Marrakech medina. Here is where you find snake charmers and other acts all set up for the tourists. It’s entertainment meant to generate a profit. But really it’s one of a kind and worth the experience. It may be loud and crazy and unsettling, but that is part of the charm.

Just wandering around the labyrinth of streets with interesting shops merits at least a couple of hours.  Go by in the day to get in some shopping (or at least window shopping).  Then return later at night for the real entertainment.

The Marrakech medina. The brick walls of the mosque match the red sandstone color of all of Marrakech.
The Marrakech medina. The brick walls of the mosque match the red sandstone color of all of Marrakech.

 


READ MORE ARTICLES ABOUT MOROCCO

A Visit to the Fez Tanneries in Morocco: The Brutal Reality Behind Leather   

Sharing My Top Travel Tips for Morocco

True Tales of My Week Driving in Morocco

Marveling at an Ancient Kingdom: Nine Photos of Volubilis that Fascinate

My Travel Nightmare: a Tour in Marrakech Gone Awry

An Expedition to Chefchaouen: Exploring Morocco’s Blue Pearl

 

 

 

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Matt Weatherbee
Matt Weatherbee

Hi, I’m Matt.  In 2008 I quit my job, sold everything and drove from Boston to Mexico to start a business.  Now I live and work in the Carribean, and spend my free time traveling the globe.  Learn more.

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